FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: (No Title) by Anonymous

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Photograph (c) 2015 by Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

 

Anonymous, on behalf of all the of TKZ family  I bid you welcome and thank you for submitting to our FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE and thus braving the constructive slings and arrows which may or may not be coming your way!

“Lyssa, come back!” the large, dark haired man shouted.  The woman had lured him into a hedge maze, but he suspected that was only to provide him with a false sense of security.  If the woman had survived this long, had done the things he suspected she did, there was no chance that she wouldn’t know his particular abilities.  He sighed, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes, hearing the voices on the wind as the plants themselves bent to whisper of her actions to him.  She was waiting at the center.  He hesitated, almost turning to leave but deciding that if he could not defeat this hack on his own grounds then he was doomed to fall on hers.  He strode forward, determined and defiant, the plants parting for his footsteps until he reached the end of the maze.

Lyssa saw the dwarf boxes part, a grin crawling onto her face.  She was laying on her back, her head towards the man that currently pursued her and her arms spread out to her sides, tilting her chin up to look up towards the man.  “Did you like the maze mister?  I know how much you love plants.”  She saw him hesitate again, only grinning wider, stretching comfortably on the grass.  Reaching this moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.  The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a mere puppet, a toy for her to toss away as she became bored with him.  Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.

He had loved her like a daughter.  He still did, but he needed to know what she was.  He continued his strong stride towards her, her words like needles in his mind, laced with that all too familiar giggle.  He snapped his fingers, the hedges moving like vines to snap around her limbs and hold her on the grounds.  She squirmed a little, but her grin did not waver in the slightest.  Was she so confident he would not kill her?  It would take only a moment like this, another snap, but he dared not imagine what the brambles would do to her if he did.

Anon, this is an intriguing opening page with an interesting premise. I like the pacing and was actually disappointed that I only had one page to read. That’s a good sign, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t read fantasy literature on a regular basis. Let’s keep that in mind as I review a few deficiencies which I think are readily remediable:

Names — Give the male character  a name at or very near to the beginning And since you have named the female character “Lyssa,” use her name rather than “the woman” as general rule. Repetitive use of  “the woman” and “the man” tends to depersonalize both of them; when we’re reading we want to get them in focus a little more clearly and naming them will do that.  often than not. And let’s use the term “dwarf boxes” — a terrific name — repetitively instead of “plants,” at least for a couple of pages. Drop little hints, like breadcrumbs through the forest of your story, each one describing the dwarf boxes so that by the third page or so we know that they are plants without telling us. Show, don’t tell.

Perspective — Let’s keep the perspective with the man for the first page or two. It changes here after the first paragraph and it’s a bit of a sudden jump. Shifting perspectives so early in the story and so quickly is a bit jarring, and doing so from paragraph to paragraph is a bit much. I’m seeing a little more of the abrupt shifting, probably for the reason of creating suspense, in published books these days but it usually takes place (much) later in the story. I recommend getting your story rolling — and I mean really rolling, like several chapters — before you start doing that if you do it at all. It appears that you are trying to create what I call a “Bugs (Bunny) and Elmer (Fudd)” scenario, as in Elmer sticking his hand down the rabbit hole saying “Now I’ve got you!” to which Bugs responds, “On the contrary! I’ve got YOU!” You can do this solely from the man’s perspective. He sees her smile, hears her question about the maze, and senses her confidence but is in turn confident in his own powers over the dwarf boxes to control the situation.

Literary elements — Some of the similes, metaphors and turns of phrase in the second and third paragraphs read as if you’re trying just a little too hard. You get an ‘A’ for effort, but sometimes the phrasing is a bit awkward. “Grin crawling on her face…” Ugh. I pictured a spider or something crawling out of the grass. Try something like “The corners of her mouth slowly turned upward.” Then there is“The moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.”  I’m not sure what that means. The story has barely started and you’re talking about the climax. “The words like needles in his mind…” again, it’s a simile that doesn’t quite work. It’s somewhat cringe-inducing.  I think it’s just a matter of overreaching, and while there are worse sins you could commit I recommend that you focus on telling the best story you can the first time through and then going back and judiciously embellishing your sentences. A great example of a metaphor of yours that works is in the final sentence of the second paragraph. It’s simple and we can all relate.

Relationships — I’m somewhat confused about the extent of the relationship between the two characters. The man knows Lyssa’s name, and indicates that he loves her like a daughter, while from her perspective he is “the man who currently pursued her.” Again, name the man, and you can clear up the confusion by having Lyssa either call him by name, addressing him as “Stranger,” or a bit of further dialogue that hints at their familiarity with one another.

Proofreading — Proofreading is always a must, and you did a good job here, Anon, for the most part. I spotted two mistakes in one sentence in the second paragraph.  “Did you like the maze mister” would read better as “Did you like the maze, Mister?” There are probably more, but possibly not. I need a second steady eye to review my work and recommend that you employ the same if you’re not doing so already.

Anon, all else aside, I like the conflict that you have set up by the end of the page: the two characters are confronting each other, the man seemingly having Lyssa at a lethal disadvantage for a reason that you have revealed, while Lyssa seems to have a yet-unrevealed advantage of her own. Again, I really wanted to see more of this tale when I reached the conclusion of your submission. Keep plugging away and let us know when your efforts are rewarded. And thank you again for submitting your work to our First Page Critique. With that, I shall step aside and let our readers make their comments!

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20 thoughts on “FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: (No Title) by Anonymous

  1. Agree with all your comments, Joe, especially the naming issues and the head-hopping, although the writer might have been trying for Author Omniscient, something I’ve never tried, probably because I find it so difficult to do well.

    Also agree that the writer might be trying too hard with the metaphors and similes. Luke Drawing-A-Blank-On-His-Name in THE FIRST FIVE PAGES says that we can get away with 1 every 5 manuscript pages, and they must always be apt. (This said by a writer who once had 3 conflicting metaphors/similes in the same paragraph!!!! The good news is that I think I’m cured now.)

    I felt the conflict was a bit unclear… maybe the writer should address the clarity issue without disclosing too much, of course.

    Main advice from me? Keep on writing and learning.

  2. I’m in agreement with you, Joe, especially regarding the relationship between the two main characters.

    A couple of other points. Should be “She was lying on her back”, not “laying”.

    Also, I have a neurosis about the word “towards”, insisting on “toward”. I know they’re somewhat interchangeable, but seeing “towards” (like “afterwards” or “backwards”) rubs me the wrong way. But that’s me.

  3. UK style goes with towards instead of toward (though she should be looking up AT him and not towards him). UK style also uses amidst and amongst instead of US style that leaves off the “st.”

    Also no comma between large and dark, and dark haired should be dark-haired. Lots of copedit mistakes that, of course, would be corrected in a proofread.

    Just adding in my editor comments 😊

  4. Two comments only.

    There is no point of view established here. Whose story is this? Who is the protagonist? In the first paragraph it is the nameless man. Second paragraph, we head-jump to the woman, who merits a name. And in the third paragraph, we pinball between the two of them. Pick one and stay with it for at least one full scene if not a complete chapter.

    Two, this excerpt badly needs some paragraphs and what I call eye relief. Note how this *looks* on the page — each paragraph is the same length. Each contains imbedded dialogue. (Why not give every *spoken* line its own paragraph…that is the conventional style the modern reader’s eye is used to, even if you are writing historicals.)

    Which leads me to the last point, that visually this looks (and thus *reads* to the eye) as very old-fashioned and gives the impression of a sort of monotone pacing. Quick rewrite:

    Lyssa was lying on her back, arms spread wide, and she turned her head to see the man just as he broke through the box dwarf hedge.

    “Did you like the maze mister?” she said, grinning. ” I know how much you love plants.”

    When she saw him hesitate, she laughed and stretched out on the grass. Reaching this moment, the peak of her efforts, overjoyed her. The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a puppet, a toy for her to toss away when she became bored with him. Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.

  5. Please don’t be discouraged by the length of the list. Here are my comments:

    1. Who is the protagonist? Assuming it’s the “dark-haired man,” give him a name and stay in his point of view for the entire scene. (If you do choose to use his close point of view, another character would need to describe his dark hair.) In this excerpt, I didn’t find that I really bonded with the “dark-haired man” and (in all honesty) would’ve stopped reading this submission after the first paragraph. Speaking of names, name your story, even if it’s just a working title.

    2. For me, the story world was confusing. Remember that readers have never been there before. What’s a dwarf box?

    3. Too many adverbs on one page (i.e. only used 3x, slowly, forward, currently, comfortably)

    4. Too much overwriting. Examples:

    “that currently pursued her” can be shortened to “who pursued her”

    “all too familiar giggle” can be shortened to “familiar giggle”

    “He sighed, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes, hearing the voices on the wind as the plants themselves bent to whisper of her actions to him.”

    “The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a mere puppet, a toy for her to toss away as she became bored with him. Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.”

    I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to rewrite these sentences and make them tighter. Likewise, go through the entire section, and see if you can cut the word count (by at least a third).

    5. The page is filled with the deadly four R’s. See Kristin Nelson’s article about what to avoid on the first page (http://nelsonagency.com/2016/06/new-article-series-9-story-openings-to-avoid/). This is a big problem that needs to be addressed.

    6. Too much word repetition in this sample. Examples:

    The word “like” was used five times.
    The word “towards” was used three times.
    The word “was” was used eight times. (I’ve posted links to articles that explain how to eliminate the word “was” from your writing in other recent critiques.)

    7. It’s a good idea to vary the beginning of sentences. For example, in one paragraph, the word “he” was used to begin four sentences in a row:

    He had loved her like a daughter.  He still did, but he needed to know what she was.  He continued his strong stride towards her, her words like needles in his mind, laced with that all too familiar giggle.  He snapped his fingers, the hedges moving like vines to snap around her limbs and hold her on the grounds.

    8. In general, this sample needs editing. For example:

    ““Did you like the maze mister?” should read ““Did you like the maze, Mister?”

    Since I feel this section needs to be rewritten, however, I’m not going to go through and do a complete edit on it.

    9. “a grin crawling onto her face” – This is awkward.

    You seem to have a great imagination, and I feel you’d really benefit from some writing classes and workshops. Best of luck, and please keep writing!

  6. I like Gentle Reader’s comment here: submit this project to a qualified story coach for editing (not as a correction process, but as a learning process), who works at the copy level, as well. I’ve started to put my thoughts down here twice today, but stopped because… well, the list is long. I don’t want to discourage, certainly don’t want to sound negative. But I found over 20 things that I would comment upon (and, it I were an editor, insist that you change… though, if I were an editor, I would simply say “pass” after these three paragraphs; sorry, but that’s just the truth, no editor would “work on” a story with this much rawness that is this obvious, they would just sent a rejection slip) at the copy/prose level.

    The writing itself needs work, for all the reasons stated here, and more. “PJ” said it well: too many POV shifts. It’s over-written, shading to purple (the worse color in fiction). Confusing. Needs paragraph spacing and design. The prose likes its own sound and rhythm… too much so.

    We all need to “work on our writing,” especially early-on, as we also work on our storytelling. We need both of these skill sets. They are converging circles, both essential, yet separate while also dependent. The best way to get there quickly (my opinion) is to have the work closely edited (expensive) so you can see where it’s off, where it’s clunky, where it is less than professional. Hey, we write what we write for reasons that make sense to us, nobody tries to overwrite… so unless somebody points things out with specificity, it’s a long road toward improving. You have to “get it” first. It’s like a singer who is off-key… how can they know, unless they recognize it when played back? Spend the money on a prose-coach-editor, and keep at it until you can see it (even hear it) for yourself, and most of all sense it for yourself. You’ll get the feedback you need in small chunks (as you are here), but it’s easy to discard small chunks, and it leaves the rest of the manuscript open to the stylistic flaws going forward.

    Nobody ever improved a golf swing with one comment resulting from one observation while driving by in a cart.

    I admire you for submitting this. Hoping you weren’t just looking for affirmation, though… you have a huge opportunity to move forward by using this is a wake-up call. Twenty-red flags in three paragraphs is too many. Heck, one or two is too many (though some of this is opinion… which morphs into trending and then symptomatic feedback when it is consistent, as it is here).

    Wishing you great success on your writing path.

      • Thanks for jumping in here, Larry. I hate to sound tough or give too many negative comments, but you’re absolutely right. The quickest way to improve is with a private coach. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it might be best for the author to work on developing several “finished” pieces of writing in the short story area under the direction of a writing coach before attempting a novel. A musician wouldn’t attempt to play a concerto before learning to play a scale. There is a learning curve to writing. The good news is that writing skills can be taught, and no matter how old someone is, he/she can learn to be a competent writer (assuming he/she is willing to put the time in and study the craft). Good writing doesn’t happen by accident.

    • “Nobody ever improved a golf swing with one comment resulting from one observation while driving by in a cart.”

      Ha. Nicely said, Larry. Am going to steal this. 🙂

      Don’t be discouraged, writer. Carry on!

  7. Thank you one and all for your comments and suggestions over this busy holiday season! And Anon, you’ve got plenty of excellent suggestions to implement. Best of luck on your future efforts.

    Just for the record…I am in the middle of reading the latest installment of a long-running mystery series which is an excellent book but which at one point or another runs afoul of every suggestion offered today, including all of mine. It just doesn’t do so consistently. The novel, however, consists of a terrific story bedrocked by an extremely puzzling and perplexing mystery. Sometimes those elements will cover a multitude of an author’s sins…fourteen or so books into a series. Sometimes.

    Please feel free to continue offering comments on today’s First Page Critique. We. Never. Close.

  8. Here’s a quick thought I’d like to share.

    Why does overwriting happen?

    One thing I’ve noticed with newer writers is that they don’t have a grasp of story structure. Therefore, they don’t know where their story is heading. All they can think about is, “Gee, I need 80,000 words to make a story.” That sounds like a lot of words. So, they start writing and padding their sentences with unneeded words to up that word count. The beginning of the novel turns into way too many pages of backstory written in flowery prose. The main idea seems to be getting as many words written down as possible.

    Please, new writers, I beg you: don’t be a victim to this kind of thinking. Study story structure before you begin to write your novel. Know where your story is going so that you won’t be tempted to pad your writing with a lot of extra words. When you have a good grasp of story structure, you’ll find less need to pad your story with extra words. (This isn’t the only reason that overwriting happens, but it’s something to consider.)

  9. For the first, and probably only, time, I think I disagree with Larry Brooks, i.e., his comment that the quickest way to improve is with a private coach…

    I do agree with it IF, AND ONLY IF, the writer first reads a decent amount about the craft, e.g., Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown(e?) and King, and books by our wonderful writers here at TKZ.

    Seems to me that if the novice goes directly to a private coach, unless that coach is a good one and offering the help for free, the writer might be wasting a lot of the coach’s time.

    • Getting private coaching is like taking private music lessons. You might be able to teach yourself to plunk out a few tunes on the piano without a private teacher. If you want to perform with the local symphony orchestra, it’s a different matter. Unfortunately, so many people attempt to write a book when they haven’t taken English classes and studied/mastered basics like The Hero’s Journey and good old Strunk and White. It’s much more effective to work with a coach after you’ve studied the basics. That way the coach can help you apply these basics to your writing.

      For example, in “The Art of Fiction,” by John Gardener (a popular book on the craft of writing), one of the exercises given is:

      “Write a passage using abrupt and radical—but thoroughly acceptable—shifts from the authorial-omniscient point of view to the third person subjective.”

      If this kind of thing sounds like Greek, it probably means that it wouldn’t hurt to take some college-level writing classes. In a classroom setting, a teacher will be able to provide feedback on compositions, and it will soon become clear if you have the knack for writing. Many college writing teachers are very generous with their time and will be happy to sit down with students privately and access areas where writing needs work. It’s also not unusual for colleges to offer tutoring by advanced writing students. A person who is really dedicated to learning might be able to master the basics of writing in about two years. However, writing a novel and sending it to agents before it’s ready would be a like a musician giving a recital before being able to play the right notes. Why would anyone want to do this?

  10. Sheryl – in an attempt to clarify my intention (by all means, disagree with me as you see fit, this isn’t math, and it isn’t quite rocket science, but almost…)

    When a writer-in-waiting reads a craft book, or sits through a workshop, it is up to them to apply the principles to their own work. Where writing voice and narrative is concerned, there are two handicaps already: they aren’t totally principle-driven aspects of craft, they are ear-driven. Only when a specific sentence is culled out, the weakness identified, rationalized, and a better version offered (as many of the folks chipping in here have done) will the writer have the best shot at understanding how and why their sentence was left lacking, while comprehending the upside of what could/should change.

    You said this: Seems to me that if the novice goes directly to a private coach, unless that coach is a good one and offering the help for free, the writer might be wasting a lot of the coach’s time.

    I don’t think anyone who isn’t married to that writer would conduct this exercise for free. And if paid for their time, then is is a waste of the coach’s time (did you mean to say, waste of the writer’s time)? This is much like coaching sports or other art… improvement comes from repetitive WITH (under the close eye of) observation from someone who can find and correct weakness, and offer an in-the-moment coached alternative. I’m not a copy-editor-coach for just that reason, it would cost prohibitive on both sides. All I’m saying it… that’s the quickest way, and even then, a lot of hard work. Again, this writer – all of us – write what we write for a reason. When someone says it isn’t working, we shrug, we stare at the words, and too often we don’t get it. And if you’re alone in a room when this happens, it’s too easy to just move on, telling yourself that you’ll write it better in the next project.

    Which, like struggling to carry a tune (the best analogy here I can muster), isn’t so much a decision as it is an “ear.” The writer has to hear the alternative to learn the alternative, rather than improving solely from isolated examples and principles.

    Hope this helps clarify.

    • This discussion reminds me of one of my favorite movies ever: “Finding Forrester,” where Sean Connery plays the part of a reclusive author (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) who acts as the secret writing coach for a gifted black high school student. In the movie, the author gives coaching to the student in exchange for friendship. Most people will never have such luck, and for those folks, writing classes and private coaching by a competent writing teacher with a good knowledge of story structure (if one can afford it) are the next best thing. I’d also recommend acting/screenwriting classes. I find that people who think like actors are less likely to write scenes that don’t have a plot purpose.

      Btw, there are lots of free English composition courses online that are offered by colleges and universities. Here’s one such course:

      https://www.edx.org/course/english-composition-asux-eng101x-1

      If you type “free writing classes online” into the Google search engine, you’ll find lots of free college courses online. Some are self-paced.

      • Finding Forrester was a script that won the annual Nichol Fellowship in Screenwriting (1999, I believe; it was one of five winners awarded each year), and was one of the few winners to actually get made. I know the screenwriter (Mike Rich), who went on to write several more films and get paid to “polish” many others, a certifiable career directly attributable to that contest.

        • Ok, I’m officially impressed. It’s such a deserving script, imho. Tell Mike Rich he has a fan. I’ve watched that movie countless times. So many favorite quotes from that movie, but most are listed here:

          http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181536/quotes

          This is probably my favorite:

          Jamal: Did you ever enter a writin’ contest?
          Forrester: Yeah, once.
          Jamal: Did you win?
          Forrester: Well of course I won!
          Jamal: You win like money or somethin’?
          Forrester: No.
          Jamal: Well, whadchu win?
          Forrester: The Pulitzer.

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