First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

Photo of me by the late poet Glenn McKee, whom I met at the workshop.

juvenilia (plural noun) : compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.

When: Early August, 1989

Where: The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky

Who: Your Faithful Correspondent

Weather Report: Hot and humid Kentucky summer, not a lick of rain

I’d been writing fiction for about two years. Maybe not even that long. Looking at the definition of juvenilia, it would seem hardly to apply to what I was writing then, as I was twenty-seven years old. Not seventeen, or even twelve. But when we talk about writers of any age, their earliest work is referred to as their juvenilia.

Fully employed, but terminally broke, I wanted to combine a cheap vacation with a writer’s workshop. The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop was pretty much the cheapest out there, with the added bonus that Eastern Kentucky was The Land of My People. Though I didn’t actually know anyone there. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me, as I was shy about my writing.

I signed up for the fiction workshop. That worked out well for me because the instructor was named Pinckney Benedict, and now my name is Laura Benedict, and we’ll be married thirty years in July. But I digress.

The workshop was obviously everything I’d hoped for—and more. Now I wish I still had the story manuscript (we’re talking maybe ten pages) that Pinckney enthusiastically commented on. But here’s the thing about juvenilia for most writers: it’s embarrassing. Sure, when I was eighteen, it wasn’t long after I’d accidentally seasoned my from-scratch spaghetti sauce with celery seed instead of oregano that I could laugh about it. The same wasn’t true for my early writing. There’s a video (vhs no doubt) of me reading my work to the Hindman crowd that someone (thoughtfully?) sent us after Pinckney and I married. Mortifying! Even two decades later I threw out the printed pages of my two practice novels, The Disappearing and Skin Hunger (which I still think is a brilliant title, even though someone used it about ten years ago as a YA title).

We are currently deep into a house renovation due to an early fall plumbing disaster. I discovered a box on the top mud room shelf that was full of surprises from our early years. Among them was a story that another Hindman instructor kindly commented on in exchange for a ride from Hindman to the airport in Lexington.

It’s the only story I have from those very early days, and I warn you: it’s not good. It might even be funny-as-hell not good.

I thought it would be fun if I put it up as a First Page Critique. At first I planned to critique it myself, then let you all have at it. Then I decided that I would probably do a critique that would end up ten pages long, and less than thoughtful. Seriously, I practically have to tie my hands behind my back to keep myself from pointing out the first fifty things I see wrong with it.

All this is to say that it takes a lot of writing to become a writer with eight published novels and a couple of collections’ worth of short stories. I’ve been unpublished, and I’ve been a step below amateur, and I’ve been wildly, unabashedly not so good.

Take a few minutes, if you will, to read the beginning of “The View From the Woods.” What criticism could you offer its newbie writer? I’m curious to know if you see the same things I do. I’m so far from this story that it feels like it was written by someone else, so zero worries about my feelings. Or if critiquing isn’t your sort of thing, tell us how you approach your own juvenilia.

[Update, written just after I typed in the excerpt that follows: There’s a dog that has died before the opening of the story. Also, I can’t believe I am offering this up for you all to see. Oh! The melodrama!]

 

The View From the Woods

 

”Mama? Mama, did you hear what I said?” Jerilee screamed into the mouthpiece of the phone. “He shot the dog, Mama. He’s killed Petey!” The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”. She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.”

”No, Mama! I don’t need Will over here!” Jerilee stopped pacing. “I want to take care of it myself. I do.”

”Suit yourself, Jerilee. You’re the one who sounds like she’s dyin’. Now just take a deep breath and calm down,” the older woman ordered.

Jerilee closed her eyes, shutting out the harsh sunlight that poured from the kitchen window.

”Now,” her mother said, “is he gone out of the house?”

”God, yes,” Jerilee answered. “He took his guitar an’ all them stupid dead animals of his.” She looked out at the tiny, towel-covered lump that sat in the middle of the yard. “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”

”You shoulda known better than to get that little dog, Jerilee. Billy Clyde hated that poor thing, always ready to step on it whenever it made a noise. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

”Mama, it was a helpless little animal, for Christ sake.” Jerilee was pacing again. The floor creaked under her feet. “The man’s crazy, Mama. What I can’t believe is he didn’t shoot me. He’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.” Jerilee’s anger had erupted into fierce rushes of blood that pounded in her head; the air around her seemed close and tight. The ends of her fingers, wrapped securely with the phone cord, throbbed with pain.

Her mother’s voice continued from the fingerprint-blackened receiver. “Why, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. You shoulda got rid of him soon as he started steppin’ out with that little redhead from down the drugstore last year. I never can understand why you keep takin’ him back. One day you call me to say he’s gone, and the next day he’s answerin’ the telephone. You just leave the rest of his junk packed up on the front porch.”

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

  1. Brave, Brave Author, I like your voice in this piece. I also think you captured Jerilee’s agitation in her dialogue with her mom.

    My favorite sentence is when Mama says, “He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat.” We can all relate to that practical side of our mothers when life happens. In this case, you’ve also shown Mama’s Appalachian accent and the season. Nice job.

    But overall, I think the opening is too verbose. The first page is precious real estate, so try to get rid of extraneous words. For example, this:
    “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”
    could be reduced to:
    “An’ he took his guns.”

    Also, I don’t understand the purpose of this story. What does Jerilee want to do besides bury the poor dog? Kill her ex before she weakens and takes him back? I don’t know because all we have here is Jerilee complaining about her rotten beau.

    Good luck, Brave Writer. I think if you tighten up your prose and make Jerilee’s goal clear, you’ll have a good opening to your story.

    P.S., Laura, sorry to hear about the plumbing disaster. That can’t be any fun.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this. You’ve obviously come a long way. But that is the nature of things. Hopefully we always learn from yesterday and are able to apply it to today and tomorrow. Still, its good to be reminded now and again that everyone started somewhere and everyone’s early writing was as bad as our own. It gives us encouragement to know we can get better too.

    I just saw your name on the cover of Strand Magazine (Oct to Dec 2019 issue) and had to buy it. Congrats. I should get to actually read it this weekend.

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  3. This writer shows promise! I’ll pass along one great rule to absorb: RUE—Resist the Urge to Explain. Thus:

    “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

    You don’t need the second sentence. The whine is obvious in the dialogue.

    Similarly, and for the same reason, you don’t need the older woman ordered.

    When you TELL us what we’ve already SEEN (and HEARD) the moment is diluted.

    I predict good things ahead for you, young writer. Keep after it!

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  4. I enjoyed reading the page, so either I’m not adequately critical or it’s really not terrible.

    I would agree with the previous comments about verbosity.

    One suggestion I might make: I’m not sure the image in the third sentence works:
    “The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”.

    It made me stop to wonder if Jerilee’s mother actually lived across the valley from her. And would a valley be “breached”? And it wouldn’t have been literally “a thousand ‘I told you so’s,'” which makes the sentence even more disruptive. On the other hand, her mother’s one “told you so” probably felt like thousands to Jerilee, so there might be a way to show that.

    This opening is enough of a hook–gives us the presumed main characters, in action. Hopefully the “point of the story” comes very soon after this passage.

    Keep up the good work, brave author.

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  5. “The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”.

    I actually like that line. Maybe because I’m still a newbie. What it said to me was that Mama had told her and told her the man was no good, but Jerilee did not listen, so the pickle she’s in was one she canned herself. Her mother is a no-nonsense, take responsibility for your own actions kinda woman…the best kind.

    I agree with the other comments, though. As JSB said, “RUE”. Learning that.

    I like the voice. I can place these two women in rural Somewhere, USA, probably in a mountain cabin with no running water.

    Thank you, Brave Author, for showing me that if I keep learning, keep reading, and keep writing, my stories will one day be perfect. Well, maybe not perfect, but the best I can do.

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  6. Brave writer: Overall, I liked it. I think Mama has a strong, practical, womanly voice, whereas Jerilee still feels to me like she’s learning how to be that strong, practical woman- somewhere in between the child and woman stages.

    I think the dialogue speaks for itself (no pun intended), no explanations of “whined” or “ordered” are necessary. I think you can cut those kind of tags out. The dialogue’s good on it’s own.

    Now, maybe I’m missing something, but a guy shoots a helpless dog, he’s taken the guns, and has left the place… and she’s angry? Not frightened? Jerilee says that she’s sure he’ll come back. Is the anger of him shooting her dog overriding any other emotions? I think I’d have to read more to get why she feels this way.

    Lines I loved:
    – ”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.” The imminent practicality of this line gave me a good sense of who Mama is.

    – She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” A really good bit of showing here with (again) Jerilee’s transition between a child and a woman; she’s grown-up, but still needs her Mama.

    Good job! I enjoyed reading it.

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  7. My take is, as a first draft, you’re golden. You’ve got conflict in two different directions, danger, even a ticking clock (involving flies, alas). I’d like to see a stronger hint that Jerilee’s gonna wise up or get murdered or something within the next couple of pages, since I’m with Mama: just hearing her summary was enough times around the mulberry bush for me. Other than that it just calls for second-drafty stuff like tightening.

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  8. Pingback: Words for the New Year, Part 2 - Laura Benedict

  9. Laura, the writing hints at the writer you have become. Congrats on your success and for sharing your story with us. It doesn’t feel appropriate to offer a critique; however, if I must, I’d say to tighten the writing, particularly the dialogue. And what JSB said. Also, I’d remove the first the from the title. There were a few punctuation items. However, I liked that something was happening from the start and that the reader will worry about the protagonist. Even in the early stages, your writing would be a joy to edit.

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  10. How exciting. I attended Hindman with my first manuscript, too. Terrified and green, my workshop invitation came in 2012. Green, yes, but I was also in my fifties. Oh, how much I have learned since then. My manuscript took another seven years to be my first published novel, Above the Fog.

    I’m sure we both learned similar areas to improve our work. Since then I’ve learned about DPOV, showing v. telling, and tightening. Since you write thrillers, I’m also sure you’ve learned to grab the reader in the first paragraph and sweep them into a story that barely allows them to breathe.

    Congrats on your success — including the new name you acquired to place on your books. I didn’t gain a name, I removed one. Ha!

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