Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

By Sue Coletta

We have another brave writer who submitted their first page for critique. I took the liberty of breaking up the paragraphs for easier reading. Anon, white space is our friend. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

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The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman. Deafening and chilling screams, echoed through the steel door.  Andromeda found herself in a small room, with cold metal walls, a plain steel table, metal bed with a thin mattress and blanket, and an uncomfortable looking metal chair. She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.

An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.

Andromeda looked around the room, her heart pounding through her chest. Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile; the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia, who was recuperating from the flu.

After disposing of soiled tissue paper and disinfecting their dorm room, Andromeda turned on some classical music and tucked herself in bed. After that, there was a black spot in her memory. She sat up in the bed that she woke up in, and began to stretch and look around the room.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was. She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.

The room had the look and feel of a military interrogation chamber: there were no windows, no traces that anyone even knew she was there. But someone knew she was here, the same someone who put her in this place. Suddenly, Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again, growing increasingly louder, followed by a loud “BOOM!” Andromeda ran to the door, preparing her mind to bang on the door with all of her might, to hell with alerting whomever put her in this room; the only thing on her mind was escaping. However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.  Andromeda fell face first onto the cold, hard, metal floor of the hallway. The palms of her hands were burning, and so were her legs.

***

After reading this piece several times, I still can’t figure out if it’s a dream sequence or if it’s the opener for a fantasy novel. The last line indicates the events happened in the real world—how else would her hands and legs be burning?— so my guess is we’re in a fantasy world. If this is a dream, however, we need to be careful not to trick the reader. Opening with a dream is risky. Does that mean we can never do it? No. But we do need to learn the rules of storytelling before we break them.

Let’s set aside the last two sentences for a moment.

Our hero is actively searching for a means of escape while at the same time, wrestling with how she landed in an unfamiliar room. Anon didn’t give away too much too soon, either. Which is great. An opening page should raise story questions and pique the reader’s interest. Our goal is to make it impossible not to flip the page. Anon, I really hope this isn’t a dream, or it’ll undo all the conflict and tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

Writing Tics

Believe me, we all have our fair share of words we favor, extra words (overwriting), and unnecessary words that get in the way. The trick is learning how our writing tics weaken our writing.

This first page is littered with began. It may seem nitpicky to mention it, but it popped right out at me. Our goal is for individual word choices to deliver the right balance of cadence, emotion, transparency, and rhythm, so the reader enjoys the story with no hiccups. Words like began and started detract from the action.  Allow me to show you what I mean.

First line of the excerpt …

The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.

If we only remove “began to be” …

The smell of burning wood and flesh drowned out the sound of screams … the screams of a woman.

See how more immediate that reads? Next, let’s shuffle a few words around so the reader can share in the experience.

Screams drowned out the smell of burning wood and flesh … the screams of a woman. 

Better, but it still needs a few tweaks. By being specific and intentional we paint a more vivid picture …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … screams of a woman.

Next line: remember to introduce the hero right away so the reader knows who’s telling the story. While we’re at it, let’s deepen the point of view by removing all telling words i.e. smell, sound, remember, knew, thought, felt, etc.

Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Adding Inner dialogue allows the reader to empathize with our hero. Let’s add that here …

Where was she?

We still need sensory details and conflict …

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Plumes of smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine.

Hero’s reaction …

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

Put it all together …

High-pitched screams collided with the stench of burning flesh … the screams of a woman. Inside the cramped room with metal-lined walls, Andromeda [last name] jolted upright in an unfamiliar bed, the bare mattress yellowed, torn.

Where was she? 

Rotted meat blended with the warmth of a campfire. Smoke billowed through the barred-window in the steel door—her only source of air. And light. No windows, no other doors, no means for escape. A steel hydraulic table sat in the corner, a trickle of blood snaked down one leg, the remaining surface polished to a glossy shine. 

Andromeda’s heart thrashed, rattling her ribcage. Was her captor incinerating live victims?

See how these tweaks pull the reader deeper into the story?

Because it feels like this brave writer is early on in their journey, I added a few quick tips rather than bleed red ink all over the excerpt. I’d hate to be responsible for shattering the magic that keeps us thirsting for knowledge, keeps us creating. The beginning of our journey is an important time in every writer’s career. The muse is running wild and possibilities are endless.

Quick tips

  • Watch your adverbs; words like suddenly don’t add tension;
  • Be specific; rather than “some classical music,” name the composer;
  • All caps are reserved for acronyms, not for words like “Boom”;
  • Use active voice, not passive; this post may help;
  • Followed by, for the most part, is similar to began and started in that we need to reword to make the action more immediate;
  • Anytime you write “herself” you lessen the point of view i.e. tucked herself in bed. Instead, try something like: she slipped under the covers. Or, she swung her legs under the blanket.

I hope these tips help with your next draft, Anon. If this first page isn’t a dream, you have the makings of an intriguing story. Wishing you the best of luck!

Over to you, TKZ family. What tips would you give this brave writer?

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Recognizing Writing Tics – First Page Critique

  1. Instead of “screams of a woman” (reminds me of “Scent of a Woman”), consider “a woman screamed” or something equally immediate.

    In terms of the main character, nothing much is happening to her, nor is she causing anything to happen. Might consider starting with some action (she’s cleaning up puke and all hell breaks loose).

    Would she really be reminiscing while screaming is going on?

    I enjoy thrillers, Sci fi, etc. I would be the market for this either way. Good luck with it!

    • Good catch, Cynthia. I’m so glad you mentioned “the screams of a woman.” I, too, was tempted to change it to “a woman’s scream,” but I thought the writer might have intentionally used that particular phrase for a stylistic purpose. It’s difficult to say for sure with such a small sample.

      All excellent points. I agree. Did you get the impression this is sci-fi, fantasy, or a dream? Just curious.

      • I didn’t get the feeling it was a dream. To me this feels more like a kidnapping.

        I figured screams of a woman was a stylistic device, but honestly, it’s easy in real life to identify who’s screaming (man/woman/child), which leaves the impression our hero isn’t very smart (which may be true).

        The only time I haven’t been able to identify a scream was on a camping trip. Hubby said “Bobcat”. I said “Banshee from hell.”

  2. I like the first sentence. It made me want to read on, but Sue made it better. In fact, all of Sue’s suggestions took the piece from interesting to awesome.

    I think it’s a new adult, dystopian sci-fi. I didn’t get the feeling it’s a dream.

    My only hiccup in reading the opening was that if a young woman woke up in a strange place, she’d immediately panic, scream, and bang on the door (or warrior-like, be quiet and search for something to make into a weapon). She wouldn’t sit up and begin to stretch.

    Good luck in your continued writing, brave author!

  3. Couple of things from me.

    The first line totally threw me. Smells aren’t “drowned out.” Sound doesn’t do anything to smell.

    And grammar matters:

    Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile

    WERE futile.

    • Yeah, I agree. Sound and smell can’t drown each other out. I was hoping I’d made that clear with “collided,” but I probably should’ve pointed that out. Thank you, Jim!

  4. One of the most common edits I make for my author clients is eliminating “began to” constructions when there’s no degree or graduation of movement, or potential for disruption before the movement is completed. I wonder what in our hardwiring makes us do this, and why we need to be trained out of it. I can only think that it signals a subconscious reluctance to plunge our beloved POV characters into predicaments. A bit of foot-dragging or throat-clearing.

    Otherwise, I can think only of Jim Bell’s timeless advice, which frequently turns up in my editing memos: “Act first, explain later.” If you create a gripping enough opening disturbance, readers will wait for backstory or exposition.

    • I wondered that too, Jim. You could be right about our early reluctance to harm our beloved characters. With time, we relish the opportunity to put them in harm’s way. LOL

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Sue already gave you lots of great advice. Here are my comments:

    Opening No-no’s

    Never begin your story with a character alone thinking. This isn’t just my opinion. See Kristin Nelson’s article here (http://nelsonagency.com/2017/08/all-9-story-openings-to-avoid-in-one-handy-post/). For every writing rule, there will always be exceptions. It’s much easier to have a scene with conflict if you introduce another character. It’s also much more interesting for the reader. There are ways to work in information about setting and what not while something is happening. Paint the scene quickly and get to some dialogue.

    First Line

    “The smell of burning wood and flesh began to be drowned out by the sound of screams…the screams of a woman.”

    Write with conviction. Get rid of the “began to be” and “…the screams of a woman.” Write it like you mean it. Also, it doesn’t make sense as written. Smell can’t drown sounds. Use a better word here. Try this:

    “The smell of burning wood and flesh eclipsed the screams of a woman.”

    Avoid Tentative Writing

    Examples:

    “An eerie chill pierced the air in the room, and Andromeda wasn’t sure if the goosebumps that followed were because of the woman screaming, or the total lack of insulation in the room – likely a combination of both.”

    Get rid of “likely a combination of both.” It detracts from the writing. Don’t write about something “that followed” in order to maintain the element of surprise for the reader. Try something like this:

    An eerie chill pierced the air, and the hairs of Andromeda’s arms stood at attention. (Get rid of “in the room” – we know the air is in the room. Don’t speculate about insulation here.)

    “Dressed in a white t-shirt, gray fleece shorts, and white socks, she began to walk around the stark and unoccupied room, looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was.”

    Writing seems more powerful if you avoid hedge words like “began to.” Also, there’s less tension if you stop to tell the reader that’s she’s wearing grey shorts and such. Get into your character’s head, and write in third-person limited POV.

    Maintain Element of Surprise

    Again, don’t tell the reader “what follows.” Stay in the moment.

    Examples (in addition to the one already mentioned):

    “She wrapped her arms around her body, bracing herself for the shudder and chills that followed.”

    “However, before she could even touch the door, it receded into the floor.”

    Don’t use “however” here; it detracts from the tension. Don’t use the phrase “before she could,” because it takes away the element of surprise. Just say:

    The door receded into the floor.

    Also, the word “suddenly” is not a friend to suspense writers.

    Limit Use of “Was”

    “She was a tall, beautiful young woman, whose long black hair fell down to her shoulders, and slightly covered her almond shaped face.”

    “Her attempts to remember how she got here was futile”

    “the only thing she remembered was cleaning up after her best friend and roommate Sofia”

    “who was recuperating from the flu”

    “there was a black spot in her memory”

    “looking for anything that may give her a clue as to where she was”

    “no traces that anyone even knew she was there”

    “But someone knew she was here”

    “Andromeda was reminded of the screams as they began again”

    “the only thing on her mind was escaping”

    I’ve explained tricks on how to eliminate “was” from your writing in other critiques. If you’d like more help in this area, email me.

    Punctuation/Grammar

    Be sure to use an editor to catch problems like missing hyphens, errors in tense and such.

    Overall Impression

    I think you need to rewrite this opening and make it more “in the moment” and from Andromeda’s POV. Don’t bother telling us about her looks and clothes, because she would not be thinking about such things with everything else happening. Add another character to create conflict. Be sure to read all of Sue’s wise advice carefully. Good stuff. And I agree with what JSB and the others said, too. There’s much more I could write, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, brave writer. Writing is a process. Grab all of JSB’s books and the other great writing books I’ve mentioned in other critiques. Feel free to email me if you want a list. Best of luck, and keep writing. You have a great imagination. It’s easy for everyone to chime in and correct writing errors and such, but interesting ideas aren’t easy. A little bit of study and you’ll be able to make your ideas come to life on the page.

    Btw, belated wishes for Father’s Day to all of the TKZ guys. I loved JSB’s piece yesterday but didn’t have time to comment with all the commotion going on around here.

    • You’re awesome, Joanne. I’m always touched by the time you spend to help the first page critique writers. Excellent advice as always, my friend. xo

      • Mutual admiration here, Sue. Just started reading your Hacked book, btw, which appeals to the computer geek in me. (Also, I was in a “runaway” car once, but luckily the situation resolved itself before anything awful happened.) Love ya! Have a great day.

  6. I agree with previous comments. I would like to add that I found the entire piece confusing. Openings have a special burden. They must draw the reader in and motive the reader to continue.
    Four hundred words later, I still don’t understand her situation, and worse I don’t know enough about the main character to care about her. Even something small can evoke that emotion.
    Try using short descriptions. Using one or two facts of the environment is enough for most purposes.
    A voice from the next cell over asking if she is okay might be enough. Knowing someone else cares makes us care.
    A personal quibble, the name Adndromeda is too unusual and makes me want to to know why. It detracts from the opening.

    Here is an example of how you might open your story and address the issues I mentioned:

    The screaming began again. Andie sat up and drew her knees to her chest. She wrapped herself in her only blanket. Her cell felt colder than usual.
    Another scream. She twitched. When would they take her to the room and make her scream.
    “Don’t let it get to you. That’s what they want,” the voice from the cell to her right said.
    “I know.” She shivered.

    • I agree, Brian. The name sounds robotic to me. I don’t read dystopian sci-fi. Maybe that’s the norm? No idea. Enticing rewrite!

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