I have a first-page critique for your consideration today. Please read and comment. My feedback is on the flip side.
“I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”
Angie screamed those words and cried them at the same time, it was a horrible indescribable sound but Danny didn’t seem to care.
“Well if you hate me so much then pack your bags and leave, but I’m keeping the kids, do you hear that THEY ARE MINE NOT YOURS, MINE, so go on sod off. No one likes you anyway, you waste of space”
She started to cry, uncontrollably a solemn weep that seemed to come from a place, no, a pit so very deep inside and below it could have been hell. Sitting in her new kitchen, with her beautiful babies upstairs, this man, if he actually qualified as a man was trying to finish her off altogether. He acted and spoke like a child but he was 37 and the love of her life.
They had been childhood sweethearts, next door neighbours and nobody had ever understood her like Danny. The crack the prostitution, the gambling, the shoplifting even the trafficking. All those years ago…It was another life.
Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. But Danny understood why, Danny understood her and now he was gone or he may as well have been.
He didn’t love her, he didn’t want her anymore and she felt done with love, with life with everything, it was all too much. So, she pulled herself up from the manky chair she was slumped in, her favourite velour chair that was once red, ready to go upstairs and pack up her life.
“I never loved you, you stupid, pathetic cow” Danny laughed the words in her face as if she was nothing, as if they had never had anything together, as if she was dirt under their wheelybin. PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.
“You had better go right now” he said “Sharon’s coming round.” She’s been desperate for me to tell you and now I’ve done it. Why did it take me so long, he laughed, laying on the floor watching telly, to kick someone as ugly, stupid and pathetic as you out?”
I had a tough time with this submission. The lack of punctuation, the overabundance of run on sentences, typos, and writing craft issues made it a hard read. My biggest concern was for the main character of Angie. I found her overly aggressive without vulnerability. I didn’t find her redeemable in this first peek. It’s a fine line to portray real emotion in a scene, like fighting, if a writer doesn’t connect the reader with the character’s redemption and a humanity the reader can relate to. I’ll have suggestions on this below, but let’s look at basics first.
In order to submit to an editor or agent, or even self-publish, an author must know basic grammar and punctuation rules to submit a clean copy. Otherwise it would be too easy for the industry professional to reject it before they get a paragraph into it. Below are my more detailed thoughts.
Run On Sentences – Examples:
First sentence is a run on with poor punctuation.
Example 1: “I can’t do this anymore I hate you. Listen to me, I really do hate you. You prick”
Rewrite 1: “I can’t do this anymore. I hate you. Listen to me. I really do hate you. You, prick!”
Use of Internal Thought:
Example 2 – PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.
An author should follow rules on punctuation to make the work easier for readers, who are quite knowledgeable on basic grammar. In the above example, it is one LONG run on without any punctuation. The overuse of CAPS isn’t necessary to indicate screaming. If the author picks words that ‘show’ the action, the reader will get it.
‘Pig!’ she shouted in her head. Angie had lost the energy to say it out loud. Her husband had drained her that much. ‘He’s worse than the…’ (Break apart the run on sentence and single quote the internal monologue or italicize it. Personally, I find Angie too harsh and unlikeable. Anytime there is name calling, even if it’s in a character’s head, it makes them unsympathetic for me, as a reader.)
Example: Look, she new she wasn’t perfect. (Knew, not new.)
Setting can be a big help to add color and depth to this scene of domestic abuse. What is the setting in this story? Has she been cooking all day and he shows up late and drunk? Does she keep a neat house or a sloppy one? Depression can enter into this and her house could be indicative of her emotional state.
Focus on Angie’s Vulnerability:
Unless the author envisions Angie as vulnerable and shows it, the character’s yelling and cursing in her head doesn’t make her sympathetic. If she starts out this way and the whole story is centered on an unlikeable character, a reader will not keep turning the pages. I’m not suggesting a back story dump, but at least in a solid intro, the author must show Angie as vulnerable and scared of her husband’s anger or vulnerable to his betrayal.
1.) Show her cower when he gets in her face, yelling. She physically shakes and reacts to his abuse that the reader knows has been happening over a long time.
2.) Have her concerned over kids hearing or neighbors.
3.) Have Angie show emotions of hurt and betrayal when he finally admits he’s having an affair.
4.) What does she looks like? Her appearance? Does he make her feel worse by pointing out her looks?
5.) Has he ever hit her? A victim of physical abuse acts differently than Angie does in this scene.
A more vulnerable Angie would have me turning the pages, even if the fighting gets ugly. I would root for her to get out of the house or find a way to get out from under an abusive husband.
What do you think, TKZers? What would you add? Would you keep turning the pages?
Basic grammar, spelling and punctuation are so important. Not only agents will reject, so will many readers. Some readers, like me, cringe and stop reading. The good thing is that we can learn these things at any age. I’ve known some truly brilliant people who lacked this knowledge, but they learned.
So many stories start with a breakup scene that, for me, it’s almost a cliche. I’m not saying that it’s a no-no, just that you want it to sing, to be unique, and, especially to make the reader care. This piece doesn’t do that yet.
I agree that setting is important, not only to paint a picture in the reader’s eye, but also, setting details can show a lot about the characters without telling, e.g., is the kitchen table formica, maple, or something else (social class, decade)? Are the curtains unhemmed (the protagonist sews but doesn’t finish, or has been distracted, i.e., character and a hint at backstory)? Are there unwashed dishes in the sink? Does the light coming from the kitchen window make her squint, hurt her eyes, and why? Or, does it make her see him, as if for the first time?
It’s what I call ‘ping pong’… along with body language, an opportunity to reveal setting and character at the same time, e.g., if she cringes at his words, what does she touch or fall back against?
So many writers lose power in their writing by failing to use setting details and body language to hint at backstory, reveal character and heighten tension and conflict. Setting details are not merely description, and somehow, once I learned that, I no longer feared description or body language.
A personal pet peeve: capital letters and italics for emphasis unless the story is built around texting or perhaps for a younger audience.
This scene gives the writer a real opportunity to show so much more than is shown.
Thanks for taking the time for this feedback, Sheryl. Good stuff. Much appreciated.
I can’t get past the lack of professionalism here on basic grammar, spelling and punctuation. I will go have another cup of coffee and try again later.
It’s a tough one. I agree. I really dislike being negative about someone’s work, but it’s hard to see the intent through the basic grammar, etc. I didn’t like being in the character’s head either, but the author can learn grammar & punctuation and read author craft books to improve. Lord knows my first attempt had plenty of issues. Writing well is not easy.
I hope the writer takes your excellent suggestions, Jordan. Sorry to say, I read the first few lines and jumped to your critique.
Brave Writer, please don’t give up. Take the time you need to absorb the help Jordan and other TKZers have offered, and then put their suggestions into practice. We all need to start somewhere. This could be the turning point in your writing life. Excited for you!
Well said, Sue. Thanks for your encouragement.
I certainly wouldn’t keep turning pages, though I have a different take on it than Jordan. I’m okay having a less-than-vulnerable main character. It seems Angie was a crack addict, a prostitute, perhaps a drug mule at some point (or maybe it’s a reference to human trafficking). The point is, it seems she’s led a rough life and from the first sentence, Angie’s dialogue, we see she’s rough around the edges. I don’t mind that so much. I don’t have to like the main character as long as I’m intrigued enough by her to want to follow her.
Unfortunately, I’m not intrigued here. She starts out in your face with, “I hate you. You prick,” only to dissolve into tears two paragraphs later. There’s no consistency here. Maybe this is the problem. Consistency. Angie either needs to be vulnerable and we need to see that (through more than just tears) or she needs to be salty and we need to see that (through more than just calling Danny a prick).
I’ll agree with the lack of basic writing craft here. Run-ons, punctuation, homonyms, etc. Is this meant to be a finished, polished draft or a first draft?
I’ll also agree with the setting comment. I need more. I get that we’re in a “new kitchen,” but what does that mean? Where are these characters coming from and what’s “new?” Are we in a three story mansion in the Hollywood hills or are we in a converted duplex in the Oklahoma panhandle? Does new mean fresh Formica or gleaming granite?
I would also, however, like to mention the narrative voice. This is third person but told so casually I feel like it was intended to be first person through Angie’s POV. Phrases like “…seemed to come from a place, no, a pit …” and “Look, she knew she wasn’t perfect …” are conversational, which I think works from a first person perspective, but it loses impact in third person. There’s also that pesky narrator telling us something just before a character tells us the same thing. Narrator: He didn’t love her … then, in the next paragraph, Danny: “I never loved you …” not quite the same, but the same.
I’d like to see some elaboration here, some sensory elements so I can feel what Angie is feeling. We’re told once what she’s feeling, but I’d like to feel it. The panic in her chest, the throbbing behind her eyes, the way the kitchen swam around her when Danny said he was keeping the kids. Something so I can feel it, too.
Good input, Ryan. We have different takes but you’ve given the author a lot to consider.
The prostitution crack whore thing was mere “telling” and it didn’t blend well with the childhood sweethearts notion and Danny being “the love of her life.” I couldn’t buy it
This is pretty rough, but I did catch a compelling line, which I thought was an excellent description of utter despair and depression:
“solemn weep that seemed to come from a place, no, a pit so very deep inside and below it could have been hell.”
The author sounds British with the slang “sod off,” “manky,” and the spelling of “neighbours.” That helped me place the story.
When Angie lists the past, suggest you arrange the crimes in ascending order of seriousness so it builds from minor to major, for instance:
“The shoplifting, gambling, crack, trafficking, and prostitution…but that was years ago, another life. Danny had understood why. Besides, she’d changed, hadn’t she? She’d given him beautiful babies, a home, love. How could he throw her away like dirt under their wheelybin?”
Don’t give up, brave author. You lead off with conflict and action, which is always a good way to start a story. Ryan’s mention of writing in first person POV is worth a try. It’s easier to really get inside your character’s head in first person. Study up on grammar, spelling, and craft.
Being a writer is a continuing education, no matter whether you’re new or experienced. Keep learning from the smart folks at TKZ.
Your feedback on building on the past life infractions is a good one. Those lines about another life intrigued me more, but I have a feeling that those “tell” lines might be all the reader sees. I’m reminded that Angie’s life has been a journey of survival that I might want to read if we can see her spiral down and redemption. This spot where the story starts is not her most compelling point but the author’s instincts on what makes a character intriguing are here between the lines. There’s potential here. Thanks for weighing in.
Besides the obvious grammar errors, I simply did want to read further. The emotion was good, but there was little else compelling about the story. I would recommend a different take on the familiar topic of toxic relationships.
It’s hard to fit everything needed for a page turner in 400 words, but that’s the test of whether the skill is there. An author can learn to get better. We all can attest to this. I do see a spark of something here, but the grammar and punctuation are a wall. Thanks, Jan.
I just want to briefly add something of note other than the grammar/punctuation, and that is about the word “start”.
One of the things I’ve seen a lot lately is a serious pet peeve of mine.
People don’t start to cry, they either cry or they don’t. If they start to cry and then decide not to, why bother to mention it?
I kind of get stuck with this sort of thing, kind of like “it began to rain”.
Classic passive voice, Diane. Thanks for bringing that up. It’s a pet peeve of mine too. A character is either crying or not. No “starting to.”
The grammar issues make it nearly unreadable. But beyond that, why would any reader want to read a story that starts with two (seemingly) unpleasant people yelling and screaming at each other? I consider that concept a complete turn off. If your characters are going to fight, at least give the reading audience some sense of context. Build this up. Give us some details of the characters and their relationship. Then let them brawl.
Also: argument is not action. If one or the other of them had whacked the other over the head with a leg of lamb (see Hitchcock, Alfred) then you’ve got yourself action and a story problem. Here? Not so much.
I don’t even get why this paragraph is on the first page:
“I never loved you, you stupid, pathetic cow” Danny laughed the words in her face as if she was nothing, as if they had never had anything together, as if she was dirt under their wheelybin. PIG, she shouted in her head, because she didn’t have the energy to say it out loud, he had drained her that much, HE WAS WORSE THAN THE DIRTIEST MOST DISGUSTING FILTHY SHIT INFESTED PIG.”
Read this out loud. Is this the most artful way of expressing these sentiments? How is this supposed to hook your readers into turning the page? Also, while the author’s word choices etc. appear British (see: well, first line of above paragraph), the author should still be cautious with Britishisms. I’ve never heard the word “wheelybin”, for example, and I’m what most people would term well-read.
I hate to be this negative. I usually just don’t respond when I dislike something. Here I think you really need to think about what your story is about, whether or not this is the best place to enter it, and how to use the first page to entice the reader into continuing the journey, plus work on your grammar.
The book GONE GIRL had 2 pretty messed up people at its core, but it was so well-written that it turned into a train wreck you couldn’t stop watching. That kind of book is a one read for me. I don’t like anything too depressing. My choice, but there’s an art to putting a character on center stage who had real problems. A tough spot for a novice writer to achieve. Thanks, CF, as always. Glad you weighed in.
Just as a point of interest, we have wheelybins in Australia, although I would have spelt it as ‘wheelie bin’ (they’re our garbage bins that are on wheels, so they’re easy to roll out to the street for pick up). We don’t tend to use the English terms mentioned here, such as ‘sod off’, so perhaps there are also these types of bins in the U.K.?
I have heard that Australia has similar spellings & wording. I don’t assume UK anymore. I read lots of books from Brit authors & enjoy them, so I’m familiar with the difference between US writers & UK. I like knowing there are wheely bins. Ha!
The best advice I can give you, brave writer, is to take a little bit of time to study the basics of writing. Start here:
The first exercise on comma splices and fused sentences would be a great place to start. Work your way through all of the exercises. Then get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and study it. I know that you want to get to the writing, but in the end, you’ll save yourself so much time if you learn the fundamentals first.
I once proofread a piece of writing as a favor to a new writer, and none of her punctuation made any sense to me. So I asked her what rules she used to decide where to place commas. She replied, “I put a comma wherever I feel like it would be good for the reader to take a breath.” Unfortunately, writing is based on rules, not whims. Rules can be broken sometimes (but only if the writer knows what the rules are and can explain the reasons for breaking them). Rules are tough for “artsy” people, but learn them, anyway.
I’m going to assume that you’re going to fix the punctuation errors and such. So what next? Use a search engine to research the terms “overwriting” and “on the nose dialogue.” That’s enough for one day.
Enjoy the writing journey, brave writer, and carry on! ♪♫♪♫♪♫
Good tips & encouragement, Joanne. Thank you.
I felt bad for this author when I began reading the story only to check off the punctuation and grammatical errors. They were a downer for me. Your very good advice to get arms around the writing basics first was excellent. There was too much unexplained animosity and I doubt I would have continued to read this story. It has potential should the author heed your critique and suggestions. I wish the author luck in this new start of what could be a great story.
Thanks, Frances. It’s helpful when authors develop a thick skin when it comes to reviews or criticisms. One of my first beta readers was a woman who turned vicious if she wasn’t on her meds. I had a taste of her vitriol on occasion and had to sift through the foul words to decipher what she meant. It was a good exercise in patience and acceptance.
This author received good and solid feedback from TKZers and the feedback is solely up to the author to accept or reject. Any accepted help can be a huge gain over the long writing journey.
Thanks for weighing in.
I’m sorry to hear about the vicious beta reader. Writers should be kind to each other.