Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Inaugural Page Critique

As promised, today marks the launch of the first page critique(!), wherein we try to pin down what makes good writing good. Bear with me as I tinker with the format of this feature, and I will likely adjust on the fly as conditions warrant.

For our trial run, here's how this will work:

1. The first person to enter a 250 word excerpt from the beginning of their novel in the comment section will win the critique. UPDATE: Submissions closed!
2. I will update the post with the excerpt, unedited, so we can all read and form our opinions.
3. I will later update the post again with the excerpt now featuring my redlines, thoughts, comments, drawrings, emoticons, and assorted other marginalia (but really only redlines, thoughts, and comments)
4. Feel free to add your own two cents, but remember the sandwich method: positive, extremely polite constructive criticism (and I mean it), positive. I've decreed you need to read and heed this creed or I'll proceed to make you bleed. Indeed.

Here we go!


Here is the excerpt for critique (trimmed to meet the 250 word rule). I'll be back later with a redlined update, and in case you don't want to hit refresh, you can follow me on Twitter and I'll be Tweeting when the critique is posted. In the meantime, feel free to add your own thoughts.

There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments.

I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.

“I love you,” he said. His sideways grin usually melted my insides, but not now. I refused to look at his face while I was sparring. I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me. My toes dug into the dirt floor. I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.

Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing.

I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten. Frustration took over. After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him. Lucky for him, no one had ever seen. Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training.

“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked.


Thanks so much to Michelle for offering her page for critique! Sorry for throwing everyone for a loop by asking for 250 pages in the original post. Now that would have been some critique!

I think this is an engaging opening and even though it's an opening action scene, the back and forth is easy to follow. That's tricky to pull off and it's handled well. I also like that we're learning about the characters and their relationship through action, which is also good - we can learn a lot about the characters right off the bat.

There are two main points of critique I'd offer:

1) Mystery - While I like that we're left wanting to know more about these characters, I worry that this opening might be just a little too coy with key details. Where are they? Who are they? What are they doing? There are only the barest of clues. Even with the caveat that this is just the first 250 words and there is surely more to come, there are very few details to ground the reader in this world, and the details we do get don't quite illustrate the bigger things we need to know.

On the one hand, while you hear often that you want to leave people wanting to know more with your opening, there's a fine line between creating mystery and withholding details from the reader that they feel like they need in order to process the story. All mystery is withholding of information, but a basic (and oft-excepted) rule of thumb is that the reader should at least be able to see/know what your protagonist can see/know. If you're creating mystery through omission it's difficult to establish the Authority that Ink was talking about yesterday in his comment - if the reader feels like you're holding out on them they may have some reservations about going on a long voyage with you.

All doesn't need to be revealed right off the bat and I don't think this is an overly coy, but a little more establishing detail would give the reader a bit more of a sense of grounding in this world and establish trust that the author is giving them enough information to go on.

2) Dialogue - While I think the dynamic between the characters is interesting and there's obviously something between them, I worry that the dialogue feels a tad over the top and think there may be a missed opportunity to show a bit more characterization. It's early in the book for a character to be making grand pronouncements like "I love you" and "why do you insist on torturing me" before the reader really has the context to assess whether they're sincere, and I don't know that there are quite enough narrative clues to give a sense of whether these words are tactics or truth (or both).

These two snippets of dialogue also sound like lines we've heard before in other stories, so it's a missed opportunity to show how Ryoko is unique. What is his personality, and could his words better reflect who he is?

But overall I like the idea behind this section and think with a bit more establishing detail and more insight into Ryoko's personality and their dynamic I think this will be an even more engaging opening.


There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. While I think most of the details are strong, "readying for an attack" feels imprecise since they seem to be sparring/fighting. Aren't they both readying for an attack? Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments. There are some tense inconsistencies in this paragraph and throughout ("there it was," "was readying" in the past, "could easily swing," "could block" in the present)

I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.

“I love you,” he said. I like that he seems to be trying to distract her, but wonder if this is a missed opportunity to use unique dialogue to do so, which could reveal more about their relationship and respective personalities. His sideways grin I like the image of a "sideways grin." usually melted my insides, but not now. I refused to look at his face while I was sparring. I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me. My toes dug into the dirt floor. Good detail I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.

Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing. I was just a bit confused about the mechanics of this - if he's landing on his back with his arms splayed out how does he slap the ground and protect himself?

I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten. Frustration took over. After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him. Lucky for him, no one had ever seen. I think there's a word missing here Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Intriguing detail. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training. This though feels a bit coy to me - we're learning the rules of who is allowed to fight before we really know much about the world. It's a bit like we're learning laws before we know what country we're in, if that makes sense.

“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked. I wonder if more could be done with this line to show Ryoko with more of a unique personality.


Michelle said...

There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments.
I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.
“I love you,” he said. His sideways grin usually melted my insides, but not now. I refused to look at his face while I was sparring. I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me. My toes dug into the dirt floor. I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.
Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing.
I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten. Frustration took over. After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him. Lucky for him, no one had ever seen. Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training.
“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked. His black hair flopped over his forehead as he rolled on his side. His black eyes peered at me from underneath the curtain of his hair. If magic was still allowed, I would swear he had cast a spell over me.

Pam said...

She was sitting in Hyde Park feeding macadamia nuts to the furry little tame grey squirrels. At these times she was the most inspirable. I would place my hand to hers as the squirrel danced around her and she at the bits of shell lying around her on the ground. It was then she had the ideas to go home and write furiously for hours. Sometimes even days. If I was feeling particularly foolish I would bend down and touch my nose to her willing every bit of my Olympian magic into her, directly fueling her with the best ideas and confidence I could muster. She was so lovely in the park , the squirrels always paid court to her as if she were Victoria in the flesh.

I am left with a feeling which is at my best guess what humans would call longing. I long to sit beside her in Hyde Park and watch her lovingly stare at the little rats with bushy tails as if they were the most adorable creatures in her world.

I had recently been chastised by my fellow muses and by Zeus himself for spending too much time in the mortal realm with this charge. Knowing my place was in Olympus was not enough to keep me from spending my days and nights watching and inspiring her.

Nathan Bransford said...

Michelle wins! I'll update the post and will be back later with the critique.

Trinity said...

Darkness cloaked the back parking lot in Little Five Points. Mecca Trenow watched the man on the crumbling asphalt beneath her shudder, her own fear held at bay by the need for survival. Hayden's dusky blue eyes widened and a confused grimace transformed his face into an ugly, alabaster mask. Crouched over him, the arm in her grasp thinned, until she felt the bone between her fingers. His dark hair greyed, then wafted to the concrete like so many delicate feathers.

He withered.

She closed her eyes and tugged at the golden life force within him. Its colored fringes had already washed out to a pale pink. The silver tethers which held it stretched, then popped, one by one. Mecca surrounded it with her own energy, gold with blue fringes, as it began to come away.

The captive energy swung free from its bonds, momentarily bathing the cold, dank Cavern in light. It hurled back into Mecca. Her own life force, the little part of her soul she'd sent into him, crashed back into her, breaking her hold on his frail arm. She toppled onto her ass between the cars, pain vibrating up her spine.

Energy tore through her, mixing with her adrenaline. It reached her toes before bouncing back up and shooting through her entire body again. Her skin tingled electric.

She had no concept of how long she lay on the gravel lot. The acidic smell of piss coming from the ground made her queasy. The energy waned

Hillary said...

Holy FAST, folks.

Liz Lee Heinecke said...

Jess had always hated the wind. It made her feel unsettled. Curled in her sleeping bag, with her ears covered with a sweatshirt, she could still hear it flapping the tent. When sleep finally came, instead of dreaming about horses, Jess dreamt about looming stones and wild, whirling funnels descending from black clouds. She ran and ran, but there was no place to hide.
The next morning, she peered through the mosquito netting before pulling on her boots and poking her head out of the stuffy tent. The air smelled like pine needles and sunshine. Her mom and dad sat nearby, next to a crackling fire. Spotting Jess, her mom set down her coffee and smiled.
“Good morning Sweetheart, did the wind keep you up again?” she asked, handing Jess a granola bar.
“I’m not sure what was worse, the wind or Dad’s snoring,” Jess replied, glaring at her dad with mock anger.
“What? I don’t snore,” he replied innocently.
Jess rolled her eyes. She was grateful to have parents she actually got along with. Lots of kids she knew couldn’t stand theirs. Stepping backwards, she tripped over Piper, who sat behind her, tying the laces on her hiking boots. Jess hadn’t even realized her sister was awake.
“Watch out!” Piper said.
“Sorry, I thought you were still asleep,” Jess replied, not really all that sorry. Piper was always underfoot.

Michelle said...

Squee! Can't wait - thanks for the opportunity! :-)

Anonymous said...


I’m Different
JUDY - "I know I'm different, but from now on I'm going to try and be the same."
HOWARD - "The same as what?"
JUDY - "The same as people who aren't different."

('What's Up Doc')

I am a middle-class, middle-aged female living in Austin, Texas who has bipolar. This realization that I may be strangely odd didn’t come as some Texas-sized epiphany over sizzling barbeque. The discovery took years—three decades to be exact. Years and years of monumental mood swings. When “up,” I’m rocket girl. In the ionosphere, I’m circling the earth at a million miles per hour. My muscles are electrified, dancing around like Tom Brady performing a drop back pass while trying to avoid Tommie Harris. I paint without a canvas, write without paper, drive without a map and dance in the rain without an umbrella. I’m deliriously euphoric. My energy levels can soar like a neutron collider: accelerate wildly into compulsive thoughts that inspire me to step out and sign up for the National Orchid Society and the Dracula Society of Romania while the shower water is still running. Powerful manic episodes can stimulate intense creativity. I can write on a screenplay for a few hours or days and then abruptly start a children’s novel. By day’s end, I could move to painting what could very well be described as vomit on canvas or join the Naval Reserves in a grandiose unrealistic moment. Chasing a wad of dog hair with the vacuum cleaner could very well be the apex of my afternoon. All the while bouncing from one thought to another like Wild E. Coyote with a flame to his butt. Sometimes mania inflates my self-esteem to a dangerously high-risk level.

Anonymous said...

Thats not 250 words!

Nathan Bransford said...


It's 247.

Keith Popely said...

I like Michelle's writing style. I'm not a huge fan of in medias res, but that said, I find her economical wording easy to follow. And quick, too. The story moves fast.

daniel t. radke said...

Heh, you put 'pages' instead of 'words' again.

hannah said...

I'm really drawn into the situation here, and I care about what's going on with the characters. I was totally intrigued.

I think the writing gets a bit choppy at times. I would vary the sentence structure a bit more--mix long sentences in with the short ones, etc. And I think the end gets a little info-dumpy, with the information that your main character is an adopted girl. If you work some of that in a bit earlier, it could make it sound more natural and make the very beginning a little less confusing. I also agree with Nathan about the dialogue, but I liked the "I love you!" I was totally intrigued, and it gave the story a different kind of twist, I think, and gave me a clue that we weren't looking at a serious battle.

All in all, I really liked this. Especially the first paragraph, which I think is really strong and drew me in immediately. Thanks for volunteering!

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Daniel. Time to take my brain into the shop.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Thanks for putting your words on the block for the rest of us, Michelle.

My first thoughts:

From "backhand" and "forehand", I thought they were playing tennis. Even with "punch" in there (I've heard people use "punch it" to mean a hard strike on a ball.). It wasn't until "He'd be on the ground in moments" that I was sure this was a fight/sparring match.

Maybe if you only used one of the "hand" descriptions it wouldn't feel so much like tennis.

The voice is easy and comfortable.

madisonwoods said...

Nathan, I enjoyed reading your dissection of Michelle's excerpt. I hope you plan to do more of this sort of thing. It's a great way for us to learn how to tighten up and polish our writing.

Rebecca Mahoney said...

It's definitely a strongly written, action-packed scene... but Ryoko is a girl's name! Was that intentional?

patlaff said...

Thanks, Nathan. Good stuff

Kristan said...

WOW, appreciate this look into what feedback from an agent/editor could look like. Thanks to brave Michelle and intrepid Nathan!

Mira said...

Nathan, wow you're fast!

I'm extremely impressed. Not only are you fast, but your critique was spot on.


Boy, are your clients lucky!!

Wow again. You're very talented Nathan.

Okay, so I'm not sure I have anything to add....

First, kudos to Michelle for putting yourself out there. Brave! Good for you! :)

And overall I like this piece alot.

I thought the fight was well-done -that is really hard to do, and I liked the set-up at the beginning -and my surprise that the narrator felt no fear.

But I agree with Nathan about the need for more details - as a reader I was working alittle too hard, and needed just a touch more context.

Loved the line: 'his sideways grin usually melted my insides.' Nice.

I'm mixed on the 'why are you torturing me' line. I liked the flirtatous quality and I liked the acknowledgement that Sinna usually wins. I actually liked the familiarity of it - it helped ground me. But - if there were a bit more context, I might not need that grounding, and another line might have given more insight into the relationship and Ryoko, like Nathan suggested.

Okay, that's it. Nicely done, Michelle.

Oh - I felt voice in this, as per yesterday's post. I felt like the odds were good that I could settle in to a good story.

Marilyn Peake said...

I'm going to read the excerpt and critiques later today, but just wanted to say that the Page Critique addition to your Blog is awesome! Your Blog just keeps getting better and better ... and better. And LOL about the "drawrings".

Michelle said...

Wow - everyone. Thanks for the great thoughts. This is so fun and an amazing opportunity.

Rebecca - I had no idea Ryoko was a girl's name. *note to self to change his name* :-)

The Daring Novelist said...

As Josin said: the opening details were just too unclear as to what they were doing. I thought tennis too.

Because of that, I had a hard time getting into this. I'd like more orientation into the scene.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michelle and Nathan. Nathan - When do you expect to have the next one of these?

Nathan Bransford said...


Not sure! Maybe every other week or so?

Michelle said...

Hmmm...I could see why people would be confused by the opening. If the reader knew it was fantasy going into it, I wonder if that would change the perception?

I love how so much can be said about 250 words. Keep it comin'!

Josin L. McQuein said...


For me, knowing the genre definitely puts the story in a different space.

This is a cold read, but if I'd known it was fantasy, I'd have thought "sword" instead of "tennis racket". (Unless it's UF and then it could still be tennis.)

Ishta Mercurio said...

Woo-HOO! Nathan, how often will you be doing this? Please, tell me it will be a regular addition to your blog.

Okay, back to the reason for commenting: Michelle, thank you for posting this for us all to see, learn from, and think about. Kudos to you! And, it's a fairly good opener - you drop us right into the action, which I like, and which left me wanting to find out more about these two people, where they are, how they got there, and what is going to happen to them. It's also pretty tightly written: in the line "Girls weren't allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself," you manage to convey that the protagonist is an adopted girl living in a place where fighting is probably encouraged, but not for girls and not for adopted kids. Pretty good stuff.

I agreed with much (come to think of it, all) of Nathan's redline comments. Moments that stuck out to me the most were when Sinna manages to hurl/knock Ryoko to the floor (I too was trying to picture the actual event, and couldn't do it without going back and re-reading the first paragraph a couple of times), the sentence "He was readying for an attack," (which felt out of place to me, probably because of the POV or maybe because of the tense changes in the excerpt), and and the sentence "Frustration took over," (which is a POV change, but the first page feels too soon for a POV change). I loved that Sinna giggled when Ryoko landed on the ground, and like the tension between the two characters.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this, and think that it will only take some minor tweaks to make a big difference. Your writing is tight, which is something some of us take years to get right. Nice job!

Michelle said...

Hey Josin,

It's actually hand-to-hand combat. I'm familiar with tae kwon do, which is where I'm drawing the techniques from. Obviously I need to be more clear on that.

What's great is that my WIP is still in first draft stage so this will be a great starting point for revisions.

I'm happy to be the guinea pig! :-)

Thermocline said...

I'm not sure that knowing it was Fantasy would have made much difference to me. I needed a few more details to orient myself to a place, though the dirt floor was distinct. I felt a little lost, but the interplay between the two characters engaged me right away.

Anonymous said...

Strong writing, but for a first person voice, I didn't get enough of a sense of this narrator to be sure I wanted to continue. Maybe focus longer on Ryoko to develop a deeper characterization of him (and hence the narrator) and use the action to hint at the relationship between the two....

Stephen Prosapio said...

I hate telling writers how to tell their story, so only a suggestion. Opening line should be:

"Lucky for him, girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself."

That was really the only "hook" that drew me into the story and really made me want to read more. Why wait for half a page?

Carole said...

Michelle, I think your first 250 words work well, with a couple of exceptions. The names of your charachters are excellent. I would change He was readying for an attack to: He readied for the attack.

I actually thought the "I love you" comment was great because boys of every world know it is a huge distraction to girls. (Girls are a bit squishy where the heart is concerned.)

The falling scene could be changed just a bit to make it more readable. For instance: He stumbled, arms flailing backwards, hands slapping the ground to break his fall. Still his back felt the sting from over confidence and a hard landing.

Frustration took over immediately after giggling? Who was frustrated?

Great job.

Marilyn Peake said...

Finished reading the excerpt and Nathan’s critique. Michelle, I like your crisp, clear writing style. It’s engaging and moves the excerpt along quickly. I agree with Nathan about the importance of grounding the reader in a bit more detail about the setting, in replacing some of the ordinary dialogue with more unique dialogue, and waiting to include lines of dialogue like "I love you" until the reader has a better sense of exactly what that means to the characters ... or maybe that line would work better if more details about the setting were supplied immediately after it. After using "I love you", "Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?" could be changed completely to something more unique. "I love you" and "Why do you insist on torturing me..." are used a lot in fiction, so a really unique reply to "I love you" could reveal a lot more about the character making the reply. In the movie, STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, after Princess Leia says, "I love you", the arrogant Han Solo says, "I know" – a line that so perfectly sums up his arrogance. In an interview, the filmmakers said that Han Solo kept trying to say the original script line, "I love you, too", but it never came out right. After many takes, he finally just said, "I know". The filmmakers realized immediately that that was the way Han Solo would really react, and it’s such a funny and unique line of dialogue.

D. G. Hudson said...

Thanks, Michelle, for being the test case. I like the hint of a strong female lead in your sample.

This redline analysis is a great teaching tool, Nathan. Writers are so close to their own work that it's difficult for them to see where the world building falls short.

Enjoyed the lesson, and appreciate you sharing pointers on editing/revising.

Mira said...

Michelle - yes, if I knew it was fantasy, that would have made a difference in my reading. For one thing, I'm more patient with fantasy, because I know the author will be world-building.

Still, I really did want alittle more context. But that's me, for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Quick feedback: I knew the slapping the ground to absorb was fairly standard from watching a few martial arts sparing matches. However, there probably is a way to describe it better, maybe starting with something about the sound (it can be rather loud) and then an explanation of the slapping to absorb shock.

cannonwrites said...

Nathan: thanks for this awesome new feature! Michelle: great page to start things off! You've got nice ingredients here: sexual tension, class struggle, and a kick-ass (literally) main character.

My constructive thought: make your verbs work for you. Right now you've got a fair number of passive phrases ("There it was," "reflexes were faster," "weren't allowed to fight," "was given some leeway," etc.). I realize that some of this passiveness adds to the mystery (e.g. we don't yet know who prevents girls from fighting). However, you write so much more vividly when you do use active verbs, like: "[h]is black hair flopped over his forehead." I really like that you've created immediate conflict, though, and I like your characters. Well done!

Again, thanks for the sample and the critique!

reader said...

Holy crap, how'd I miss all this? Nathan, this is really wonderful. What a huge opportunity for someone. A great addition to your blog!

Michelle, good for you for getting yours in there first. I like how the writing is clear and clean. It moves right along and I think that is important. I will say, I didn't know what type of world I was in as I was reading. It almost had the feel of a contemporary book, two brothers kidding around, until I got to the unusual names. This might be my personal taste, but I like to find out a little more about a character before seeing them in an action scene right off the bat. Maybe for this reason the "I love you" gave me a jolt. I didn't know it was a boy and girl fighting until then.

Edward W. Robertson said...

I could tell you're personally familiar with martial arts. I think that familiarity, paradoxically, is what's causing some confusion.

You could use the term "backfist" instead of "backhand." That's more explicitly martial. As for Ryoko's back breakfall, I think the chronology in the sentence is tripping people up--his arms "slapped on the ground first," but that clause comes after the one about landing on his back, forcing the reader to revise her mental timeline of events.

Incidentally, does the ground-slap come first in tae kwon do? My experience with this technique is you slap the ground the moment your back comes into contact with it, which helps to disperse the force.

I'm following this scene fine, and can tell you know what you're talking about, but I think more specific details like Ryoko's hand posture, and how exactly slapping the ground will protect his back, will sharpen the image for those with less MA exposure.

Eric said...

Excellent suggestion on the new opening line, Stephen P.

John said...

“There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. “
[[[It’s best to be as specific as possible as soon as possible so the reader knows who the characters are immediately. Otherwise, artificial tension is created by waiting to find out their names.]]]

“Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. “
[[[This sentence sounds a bit clunky, and on the first read, it tripped me up. I would like something clearer, perhaps “Backhand, probably, judging by his arm’s positioning.” But even with that clarifying fix, we don’t get an idea of what “position” the arm is in.]]]

“He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch but my reflexes were faster, more finely tuned. I could block him with little effort, duck down and spin while kicking my leg out. He’d be on the ground in moments.”

”I wanted to grin, but I held back. I had him again.”

’“I love you,” he said. His sideways grin usually melted my insides, but not now.‘
[[You’ve already used the image of a “grin” twice. Be careful of repeating details, especially when they’re rather vague like grinning. This detail doesn’t distinguish either of the characters or necessarily gain interest from the reader.]]]

I refused to look at his face while I was sparring.
[[[On a logistical note, this should probably be “while we were sparring.”]]]

I couldn’t believe he’d think that would work on me.
[[[Again, the language here is vague. Try to use a thought that shows your reader who your narrator is. Use slang, use idioms, use her personal linguistic tics, use words that define who this narrator is and establish her voice. Anyone could say this sentence, now make it hers.]]]

My toes dug into the dirt floor.
[[[This is pretty good, you’re giving us a more specific image, although you could pick a more vivid verb than “dug” like “curled.”]]]

I wouldn’t lose my grip, not now.

Ryoko’s hand flew and the scene played out just as I thought it would. He fell to the floor, landing on his back and his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing.
[[[Work on the syntax of this sentence. Going from past tense “fell” to “landing” to “jerked” is pretty messy in itself, and following it with the qualifying chunk at the end is pretty confusing on a literal level. It’s hard to imagine the order and appearance of these actions taking place. Don’t be afraid to break this sentence up, but definitely rework it.]]]

I giggled, seeing his eyes close and tighten.
[[[I think just “tighten” would be more effective to the reader picturing this. I can’t imagine both closing and tightening of the eyes at the same time.]]]

Frustration took over.
[[[This sentence is unnecessary. It explicitly says his feelings, and the next few sentences do an effective job of detailing his frustration anyway.]]]

After all these years, he still had a hard time believing a girl could beat him.
Lucky for him, no one had ever seen.
[[[Using him at the end of the previous sentence and in this sentence sounds awkward, so just start this sentence with “Luckily.”]]]

Girls weren’t allowed to fight, especially not an adoptee like myself. Technically he wasn’t allowed to fight either, but since he was adopted by the arms master, he was given some leeway to assist with training.
[[Careful here, these few lines are bordering on info-dump. They are good at building tension and piquing the reader’s curiosity, but why is all of this seemingly important information spilled out here?]]]

“Why do you insist on torturing me, Sinna?” he asked.
[[[This is pretty clean, I like the dialogue.]]]

Anonymous said...

Very nice start. One minor comment: I was thrown by the name Ryoko. Here it refers to the name of the male character, but in Japan, I believe that it is a (popular) female name. Otherwise, keep up the good work.

Elie said...

I thought it was tennis at the start too - just needs rephrasing.
I really like the 'I love you' because it's unexpected and intriguing. Immediately I think I know quite a lot about the two characters and their relationship. The toes/dirt floor is good right there as it propels me into the sensation and tension of the fight.

MJR said...

I agree with Nathan's comments and the others' comments that it might help to insert a few key details to help the reader along. By the end of the page, I get that they are both adoptees, but she's a girl and isn't allowed to fight. I'm assuming it's a sci fi or fantasy scenario? I agree that backhand, swing etc sound like tennis. By the end of the para, I realized it wasn't tennis, but you might want to consider changing those words. You might also want to consider starting with a short paragraph to ground the reader before you get into the action and dialogue. Thanks for letting us read it! It sounds intriguing.

treeoflife said...

As a martial artist, I liked the opening right away... I've started a novel with a sparring scene before too, so you scored point with me!

That said, I agree with a lot of Nathan's comments. I would add:

When you said "and spin while kicking my leg out".

I don't think the "my leg out" part is necessary... 'kicking' implies that your leg goes out already.

Also, with the "his arms jerked out to the sides, slapping on the ground first to protect his back from a hard landing."

I know exactly what you're talking about and can picture it clearly in my mind, but I have a black belt in TKD, and not many other readers will.

That aside, the writing flowed smoothly. I certainly wasn't ready to stop reading!

E.J. Wesley said...

Fun experiment, Nathan! I wonder: would you (as an agent) look at the first 250 words with such scrutiny if this were simply the first 5 pages included with a query? Or would this level of critique only come at the partial/full request stage, or maybe even only after you’d accepted the work/client for representation?

I’m sure the thoughts wander through your mind as you read even the partials, but I’m guessing some of the things noted wouldn’t necessarily keep you from reading more, etc.
(Before the masses beat me in the head, I realize this exercise is for the benefit of the writer and is not intended to be an example of your thought process for choosing something to represent. I was just curious, like the cat, but with fewer hairballs.)

As for the sample, I really enjoyed it. Unlike some of the other folks who’ve mentioned some confusion over the action, I followed right along. “There it was. The twitch. He was readying for an attack. Backhand, probably, from the position of his arm. He could easily swing it around to a forehand punch” I know my tennis is rusty, but I think McEnroe was the only one allowed to use a ‘forehand punch’ and still call it tennis. Seriously, that’s like three lines in, so I’m not sure why others thought this was speed curling or what not …

At any rate, a very solid opening that would (does … put that in your tense pipe and smoke it, Bransford! lol) have me wanting to read more.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Now this I like. The best way to learn is watching a pro edit. Great idea, Nathan.

And I like the story Michelle, and your guts to put it out there.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Thank you, Nathan. Very interesting and informative.

Jolene said...

People seem to think that if the genre was known, the first paragraph wouldn't confuse. I don't know about the rest of you, but after I pay for a book and sit down with it, I'm pretty certain about the genre. Thanks SO much Michelle - I want to know when this one's published so I can read it. I'm curious.

mshikibu said...

Just to back up some of the other comments, Ryoko is a very common Japanese girl's name. There are a number of famous Ryokos as well, both real and fictional, including a 2-time Judo Olympic gold medalist. (

However, I'm fascinated that the author came up with the name independently for a guy.

As for the story, I don't know what this says about my gender bias, but when I was reading this for the first time and got to the "I love you", my first thought was, "Oh, could this be a gay couple? That could be interesting." And then I saw the name "Ryoko", which signaled a girl to me, and I completely stalled out, thinking I'd missed something. It took me a while to move on and come to the conclusion that it was meant to be a boy's name. So, for me, at least, a bit more on the characters earlier on would have been nice. Maybe have him drop her name in the "I love you" line or something?

Other than that, I thought it was a fun opening. I've practiced a bit of martial arts and I liked the details of the sparring. And the character details also painted a nice picture, once I got their genders figured out. ;)

Emily Cross said...

Nathan this is BRILLIANT!!

Its great to see your perspective on others' work, I hope this becomes a regular thing??

Even from looking at just 250 words, i think we can all learn so much!!

Anonymous said...

I simply cannot get over how informative all of these posts have been. Thank you SO MUCH!

Anna L. Walls said...

Boo - I got this email like 15 minutes ago (not counting load up time) and there's already 50+ comments. Satellite connection sucks sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, wonderful start.

Although the details are fuzzy in my mind, I thought the -ko ending represents a girl's name in Japan. But really, I don't know.

Your story sounds fun and action packed.


Marilyn Peake said...


I wanted to add one more thing. I should have mentioned this earlier. Even though I critiqued your excerpt, I thought your writing was so good overall, I originally forgot that Nathan had mentioned he was critiquing the first excerpt posted. As I read your excerpt, I was originally wondering how many submissions Nathan had read before choosing one with such good writing. Kudos to you – for your talent and the courage to offer an excerpt for public critique!

Anna L. Walls said...

Nathan - FYI, slapping the hands absorbs the impact - it works. For the entry, I would recommend backing off from the intimate view, just a bit. Rather than concentrating on twitches and toes, that is.

Melissa said...

Nathan –I LOVE this addition to your blog! Do it again! Do it again!

Michelle – Thank you for your willingness to let us all learn from your story.

I liked how you got right into the action and was impressed with some of the descriptions you used. My fighting/sparring scenes seem to come out like a modified Old MacDonald’s song (with a punch-punch here and a punch-punch there) so kudos for your take on the scene. BTW – the ground slapping made sense to me. =)

I’m afraid I was thinking tennis when I first read the opening paragraph (backhand, forehand, position of his arm). Some others have given great suggestions on word choice that could address that issue. The “I love you” also threw me off. It seemed like a good distraction to Sinna but I wasn’t quite sure what type of distraction it was for her. I wish I had more information about the characters so I could know whether Ryoko was being flirty, mischievous, or just obnoxious.

I really was intrigued by the end of the passage. The idea of them being adoptees made me interested in finding out their stories and what happens to them. You also piqued my interest in their world that did not allow girls to fight.

K said...

Nathan- think this will be a great regular feature. Would it be possible to get a title and genre on future page critiques?

Michelle- Color me impressed. :) I thought this was strong. The martial arts were very clear to me, but I sit spectator to my son's akido classes twice a week.

There's nothing wrong with the dialogue, but I agree it would be stronger if it revealed more of Ryoko's individual character.

I'd also look at involving your main character in your first line. "There it is" tells me nothing, but something like "I was waiting for it" or "I watched for it" or even "I knew his tell" puts me in Sinna's head from the start.

Thanks for being the guinea pig, Michelle. It's a high bar to shoot for and I'd definitely like to read more.

ryan field said...

This was good. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Michelle R said...

I am a total nobody.
A simple read-a-holic who for whatever reason enjoys Nathan's writing style so he holds court my list of the most random bloggs ever accumulated. I have zero professional advice to offer. What I do want to say is... I would so TOTALLY read this!! I just LOVED that she said "I Love You" right off the bat. I was thinking "What? Why?" and then you cut me off after 250 words. Grrr. I tend towards books with action, a strong female protagonist and it has to have some sort of romantic interest in it.- You nailed everyone before a toddler would have time to distract me. I typically can't stand the first book in a series much less the first hundered pages of world building, but you had me. I want to know more. I know you didn't offer it up for professional scrutiny to hear that it was perfect. You want refinement. I just figured it might also be nice to hear "kudos". I really enjoy your voice. Good luck!

Michelle said...

This has been such an amazing experience for me today. Nathan Bransford hit gold with this idea.

I wonder if my printer will die when I try printing all of these out? I appreciate each and every comment and promise to bring them into consideration when I begin revision. I'm about halfway through writing the book as of today.

Michelle R - don't ever call yourself a nobody. All readers are awesome simply because they read.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Great exercise! I think most everything I wanted to say has been already, although I seemed to figure out the setting more quickly than others. ("Ryoko" made me think Japan (although I too was confused because it's a female name), which, combined with the descriptions of their actions, made me think they were sparring in hand-to-hand combat.)

I can't wait to see more of these!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic addition to the blog, Nathan. Can see this becoming like the radio contest, though, everybody waiting at their keyboards to be first to "ring" in with their page. Maybe pick random intervals between events, and then mix it up by calling for the 7th entry or the 3rd.

Anonymous said...

Michelle- I liked the writing and agree with everything that's been said.

I imagined hand to hand combat, I thought I must have missed something when I read the sword comment.

Dave said...

Thanks Nathan, this kind of post is most helpful

J. T. Shea said...

Excellent opening, Michelle. I disagree with Nathan and others regarding adding more details. In reading this first 250 words without a blurb or any other info we are in a unique position. No other reader (agent, publisher or critic) will have such a limited view of the story. So far, I feel ready to trust Michelle to reveal details in an order and at a pace of her choosing.
Like Josin, I first thought of tennis, but didn't mind when that turned out wrong. As for the tense inconsistencies Nathan flagged, there is indeed a variation in tense as Sinna goes back into her own internalizations at the time of the bout, but it still hangs together for me and I could not see a way to improve it. 'Readying for an attack' I took to mean readying TO attack rather than readying to defend against an attack. Unlike Ishta, I did not take 'Frustration took over.' as a change from Sinna's to Ryoko's point of view but as Sinna surmising Ryoko's frustration from her observations of him.
All told, thanks to Michelle and the others for the pages, and to Nathan and everyone for their critiques.

Kristi Helvig said...

I just wanted to say that you're awesome for doing this. :)

BG said...

That's it! I'm releasing my mutant, flying weremonkeys. That's 3 times I have missed a critique opportunity just because I live on the other side of the world. Grrr! Oh well, guess I'll have to stay up 'til the wee hours of the morning to grab my chance. But seriously, thanks for all the advice and entertainment you have provided, Nathan. And congrats to Michelle. Great stuff.

wendy said...

I read your work first, Michelle, and couldn't detect anything wrong, and was impressed with the flow and precision of the prose. Then I read Nathan's criticism and thought it very sensitive. I guess it would take the scene to a higher level if every detail was more sensitively attuned to the situation and personality of the characters. This is something that takes immense concentration, and I realise I haven't given my own work such a degree of focus.

Something to think about and aim for. But well done! I think you've got an intriguing story that has caught everyone's interest.

Anonymous said...

Ignore the tennis comments. You said attack, which calls to mind fighting of some sort much more than sports.

Leis said...

Congratulations to Michelle for snatching this golden opportunity! I found the writing quite engaging and some good promise for an interesting premise.

Being a sucker for a solid scene set up, I would have liked more of it right at the beginning of the novel. If the relationship between the two characters is to be the driving force of the action or the plot, there is an opportunity to develop this after 'The twitch' -- sounds like a code of sorts that might signify more than is pictured in the first lines. Perhaps 'the twitch' reminds Sinna of another encounter with Ryoko or of something (an event or a milestone) in her personal past. A few well thought out sentences inserted here could make the character of Sinna bloom for the reader.

I concur with Nathan's comments on the dialogue, it could be freshened up a bit. I'd also like to see more dialogue instead of being so much in her head -- this being a fighting scene, hence dynamic; Sinna ought to be engaging/taunting Ryoko with her mind as well as her body.

Some things that slowed down my reading experience a tad: 'melted my insides' -- if the writing targets a younger audience, it might work well enough, just reads cliche to me. 'Giggled' doesn't seem to fit in a fight scene with the participants expected to focus keenly on every aspect of themselves and their opponent. 'Ryoko's hand flew'-- maybe a better word for 'flew'? The transition from Sinna's giggling moment to a state of frustration seems a bit forced -- there should be something in between.

Overall a good read and definitely shinable with a bit more work.

Thanks for posting, and as always my hat off to Nathan for this very thoughtful and valuable experiment.

Clare WB said...

Great action opening,though I too first thought of tennis. Since it's fantasy, why not create a fantasy name for "Ryoko", rather than such an easily identifiable Japanese one?
Agree with Nathan's critique--and many of the others. Did have some confusion over changing POV, but not a major problem with a little re-write. I feel this is YA because of the reference to girls as opposed to women, yet phrases such as "after all these years" make me think the two are not so young(?) In any event, great beginning, Michelle, and many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Michelle. Nathan made your good beginning even better.

The only thing I didn't agree with was the slapping of the ground. I don't do martial arts but I understood that part.

Yes, names that end in -ko are female in Japanese.

Great idea, Nathan. It will be fun to see this exercise often.

Holly said...

Nathan, thanks for this terrific, practical feature. And Michelle, best of luck to you.

Ted Cross said...

This is great, Nathan. I just hope you will vary the times of day that you open these up, so that those of us in odd time zones might be able to have a shot at it.

Stephanie Barr said...

Note that slapping on the ground is common in martial arts training. They say it's to use up momentum and make the fall less severe (it isn't - I'm a physicist and that's BS), but doing so makes it almost impossible to try to land on a joint like your hands (natural tendency when you fall to break it with hands) which can result in broken bones. Falling on elbows, hands, hips (in fact any joint) or the head is bad.

The slap ensures you land on a large surface area (your back) and is standard practice in sparring in all types of martial arts from judo to karate. Note that they are also trained to land on their back falling backwards or forwards.

I liked the scene, by the way.

rachelcapps said...

Nathan - brilliant idea :)

Michelle - this is a great first draft. Tennis never entered my thoughts! I thought they were fighting from the outset, and picked up on the martial art movements.

I did have to do double-read on the first couple of lines. I thought it was third person at first and then realised it was first person, and had to re-read to put my head in the right character. But I reread a lot of published authors first paragraphs all the time!

I was uncomfortable with the word "readying" in the first para. And her giggling as well - it lent her an immaturity (for me) and I thought "laughed" would be a stronger word and indicate maturity.

Like lots of the ladies commenting, I liked the "I love you" - it's a female hook, lol!

With all the great comments above, you'll have a cracking first 250 words in no time *grin*

Again, I really liked your style and voice. It's my genre and I'd read on :)

Rick Daley said...

Great new service, Nathan! But the sandwich method is so over-rated, who thought that up ;-)

On the first read, I liked this. On the second read, I picked up more nuances of the relationship between the characters and liked it more.

I like the use of fragments in the opening paragraph, it makes it terse and sets a good tone for the quick back and forth movements in a fight.

A couple points of note:

There's a mix of active and passive voice. When I read the first three lines, the repeated "was" made me leery that there would be too much passive voice; opening with it is daring, but the action in the story helps balance it out and you seem to use it with confidence and purpose.

Also in the opening few paragraphs, you use pronouns before the proper nous to which they, and he/him/Ryoko. It works here, but I would be curious to read more and make sure this is a well-placed break in the rules, done for voice and effect, and not a consistent tic in your writing.

Thanks Michelle for sharing your writing, good luck!

RK said...

Really appreciate this. Now I'm getting some insight into what agents mean by "the writings not there yet."

I read it and saw little things, but then I read your redlined comments...and I'm like --Good Point.

Thanks Nathan for doing this. And thank you Michelle for sharing. :)

Looking forward to more.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I live in the GTA so I follow EST, but I'm a stay-at-home mom with scant (and irregular) time to check in during the day. My odds of ever being able to post for this are slim-to-none already, but if posts are at a regular time, I can at least plan ahead to be available and at the computer. If the time of posting is randomly switched around every time, those odds will get even smaller, and it will be a total crapshoot. I feel like my only option is the "wait at the computer, fingers and cut-and-paste at the ready, at the usual time" option; otherwise, I'll have to satisfy myself with learning from reading and giving critiques of other people's work. (Which is no small amount of learning, by the way!)

Another idea is for Nathan to randomly choose a commenter from the previous week, and let that person know in advance. Once you've been chosen to post, you can get struck off the list of potential posters, to make sure others get a chance.

Scott said...

What a great idea, Nathan. A very helpful exercise.

Nathalie said...

Wow, I was getting ready to cut and paste but I seem to be a day late! You are fast, people!

Michelle, thanks for posting. I liked the piece, it was easy to read, kept my attention and although I did re-read it, I wasn't lost in the details the first time around.

As far as feedback on editing, read your piece aloud and listen to how many sentences start with 'I'. It's easy to mix it up and still use first person POV. You could also just circle the word 'I' to see how much it's used.

Anywhere you have 'was', it becomes passive so put the action back in.

And my last one - another one I do a lot as well - adverbs. Circle all of the advers in your piece and make changes where you can. The less adverbs you use, the better.

I just read this (very short - huge font) book on self editing called The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. He has some great points and a list of words (and pieces of words like 'ly' for example)that you can reference when editing as well.

Thank you so much for submitting, it was intriguing.

Nathan, I like Isha's suggestion about choosing someone from the comments section weekly or however often you want to do this (I guess you do have your agent and author jobs as well) and letting them post. It's pretty normal that I won't get to reading these until the next day between kids and work.

Thank you for doing this Nathan, it is so very valuable.

T. Anne said...

I can tell this is going to be a great learning tool.

Michelle, you sucked me right in. Good work.

Jordan McCollum said...

This is a personal pet peeve:

"He was readying for an attack" IS NOT PASSIVE VOICE.

"My reflexes were faster" IS NOT PASSIVE VOICE.

The first is past continuous tense (well, past tense, imperfective aspect), active voice. The second is simple past tense (preterit), active voice.

The passive voice is when the subject of the sentence/clause ("he" and "my reflexes" above) is in object position, and vice versa. ("He was readied for the attack by the sudden noise," for example, IS passive: "the sudden noise readied him for the attack" is the active version.)

"Girls weren't allowed to fight" and "He wasn't allowed to fight" *are* passive. The real subject of the sentence is whoever/whatever is doing the forbidding: The sensei didn't allow girls/him to fight. But here, that subject is in (omitted) object position.

Notice that was . . .ing is NOT passive and was . . .ed IS in this example.

Though simple past and "activizing" passive voice are often better than using past continuous and passive voice, both do have their uses. I find it very interesting that Nathan had no problem with any of the verb constructions (just tense matching and conceptual things).

(And Nathan: this week on the blog has been your best ever. Seriously. Even better than when I got to guest post ;)

Matt Ryan said...

Nathan / Michelle -

Regarding the male fighter hitting the ground on his back and breaking his fall with his arms, I knew exactly what he was doing, but that may be because I'm a black belt in TKD and I connected the dots.

I think "slapping" is the wrong term and may be what is throwing you off.

Maybe something like, ". . . his arms swung out from his body and hit the ground before his back could, breaking his fall." Or something like that.

I am intriqued by the opening. Thanks.

Kate said...

PROPS Michelle for putting it out there like that. I don't even let me husband read my stuff, so go girl.

I really like the way the scene doesn't feel overwritten/worked. You're writing is lean, a major plus.

I agree with Nathan that the dialogue sounds obvious and maybe even a tad melodramatic. I needed a little more lead in before the big declaration.

I love the idea of competition between love interests!

Kareena said...

I realized it one night, over some late research at work, when I came upon my plump, balding fifty year old boss hunched in grunting zeal over his twenty two year old secretary on the large mahogany desk in his office.
I had opened the door and walked in, and despite the embarrassed excuses of both, and the rushed drawing up and down of fabric over their naked appendages, I had just as silently walked out again, went back to my small office, and sat down at my desk facing the wall where the window should have been.
A quick self-examination of my thoughts yielded a curious revelation.
I was not shocked.
I was not disgusted.
I was not thrilled that I had just gotten some juicy gossip that would, if revealed, be a source of entertainment to the staff for the next six months.
No. Some part of me had just quietly said, “enough.”
It had been coming for a while. Over the past two years I had felt like I was split in two, like one part of me had separated from the other side of me that had to deal with Garrick Connolly’s constant whining in the lab.
Some part of my mind, my finer self, had in the interest of self preservation, isolated itself from the part of me that had to sit and listen while my lab mate described with spiteful glee all the sordid details of the affair she had been having with her husband’s best friend over the last year, apparently in retribution for the fact that her husband had dared to grow bald and fat and had gotten fired from his six figure job and was now working in a five figure job.

Max said...

What would happen if someone sends in the perfect manuscript? Will editors change bits to feel they've had input?

I was wondering this earlier and only just remembered.

It's not aimed at Nathan, as he's completely correct with his edits, but it was just a general thought.

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