Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, May 17, 2010

Page Critique Monday

It's Monday, which means it's time for our new regular feature (can a feature be both new and regular?): PAGE CRITIQUE MONDAYS!! Which will occasionally be Query Critique Monday, One Sentence/One Paragraph/Two Paragraph Pitch Critique Monday, Synopsis Critique Monday, and New Reality Show Idea Because The Ones I'm Watching Are Kind of Getting Old Critique Monday.

A reminder of the rules (please read before posting because the first eligible comment will get the critique):

1. The first person to enter a 250 word excerpt from the beginning of their novel in the comment section will win the critique. Please also tell us the title and genre.
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!

UPDATE #1: THE EXCERPT

Here is the page. I'll be back later with a critique, and in the meantime feel free to add your thoughts.

Title: PEARL EDDA
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The wolf circled me.

Slowly.

Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull.

It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos.

Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed.

The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled.

Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.

Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility. I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.

I couldn’t look.

I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her.


“Iven?”

Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport…

Olivia.

Relief coursed through me.

She sat in a vinyl chair across from me. Staring at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.


UPDATE #2: MY CRITIQUE

I think there are some interesting images in this opening, and you can't really go wrong with a character staring down a wolf. The description evokes the setting, and I think it's an intriguing setup. Thanks so much to Heidi for participating!

My thoughts can be broken down into two rough categories:

1) The "Just Kidding!" opening: I see a lot of openings that start one way, only to find out that what we thought we were reading wasn't really happening - either it's a dream, or the description was such that we were intentionally misled by the author (e.g. we were led to believe it was a shark attack but actually it was just a game of Marco Polo), or some other rug-pulling-out that has the effect of tricking the reader. I call them "Just Kidding!" openings.

This is a dangerous game to play. It can definitely work if handled well and if the effect is very very necessary, but the danger is that it makes it extremely difficult to establish trust between reader and author. It's the literary equivalent of a hand buzzer, and the reader may feel like the joke's on them. After this opening, everything is potentially a dream sequence, and the effect can be exhausting. It's tough to take anything at face value.

If you're going to begin in this fashion, I think it's extremely important to catch the reader right after the dream: the author has to assure the reader in some fashion that there was a point to beginning in that fashion, whether it's because the protagonist has a concrete takeaway or there's a second shiny object that catches our interest and makes us forget the rug-pulling or some other way of smoothing over the dislocation the reader is feeling.

In this case though, the protagonist is basically recapping what we already saw and if anything introducing a further mystery, and there's not enough of a sense that okay, yes, just kidding that was a dream, but there's a reason we started this way and you're in sure hands. So in this trust fall, I'm not quite sure the author catches us.

2) Descriptions that are mouthfuls: There are some strong images here that really helped us get a sense of setting, and I particularly liked "Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled." which is such a clear and precise description. However, there were other times where I felt like the descriptions felt like a mouthful, and I was concerned that it made the opening feel overwritten:

- "baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them" - This is an image that we can definitely picture, but it's a bit imprecise: just because something is white doesn't mean it's reflective, and just because it's whiter (e.g. "so white") doesn't mean it's going to be more reflective. It's not the color that makes something reflective, but rather how shiny/reflective it is (black could reflect flames too). Now, this may sound like total nitpicking and not many readers are going to stop and say, "Waiiiiiit a second, just because something is whiter doesn't mean it's going to better reflect flames!" Instead, the reader will just experience it as something feeling off. An image like this bothers the brain, even if we sometimes can't pinpoint exactly why until we stop and think about it. That's why precision is so important. But even more importantly, I just don't know that this description flows well. Similarly:
- "My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast." I had a hard time tracking this sentence. Is the detail that he/she is holding the knife against his/her thigh really necessary? And what exactly is meant by "turned with the beast"? Are they turning or are they actually circling each other and would that be a more precise description? "turned with the beast" makes it sound as if they're on a turntable. It's also not necessary to specify that "my fingers" gripped the knife - unless otherwise specified we're going to assume he/she is holding the knife in her hands, so saying "my fingers" feels redundant and "I gripped the knife" is sufficient.
- "spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip": Again, another mouthful that's difficult to track. Who are the others and how exactly are they ensnared? And what does "spinning" mean - is it literally spinning through the air? If so, that seems like something that may need to be described further so we have the right image.

There are many instances (which I'll mark below) where it seems like there's a thought that could be described much more precisely, and I just don't know that enough is gained by stretching for a more evocative description, especially in an action sequence. There definitely needs to be enough detail to ground the reader, but when it's overly wordy it slows down the action as the reader tries to unpack the imagery.

REDLINE

Title: PEARL EDDA
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The wolf circled me.

Slowly. Is this necessary? Usually a word gets its own paragraph when it’s surprising, but is it really surprising for a wolf to circle someone slowly? Do they ever circle someone quickly?

Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull. Not sure about the sentence fragment or the semi-colon. Wonder if the rhythm would be better if this were two short declarative sentences (like the body on point/hackles paragraph).

It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Tense change. Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos. The chaos hasn't yet been described, so I don't know that it needs to be referenced if you're not going to specify. Otherwise, since this scene has so far been focused on the faceoff (I originally thought the flames reflected were from a campfire or something), the reader is just going to think, "Wait, what chaos?"

Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc "awaited their turn" makes it seem like the embers are intelligent/living beings; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed. Not sure what's happening here.

The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled. Love this.

Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.

Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility Is the wolf showing off? Not sure that "taunting" is the right word choice here. I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.

I couldn’t look.

I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal "Shared that goal" feels a little awkward, esp. since "goal" is repeated again, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her. "had no desire to" seems a tad overwrought. It's also already clear that they're not on the same side, so is this necessary to point out?


“Iven?”

Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing Would the character really be wondering why their heart is racing? They just had a scary dream. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport… Since we now know this was a dream, it's important to help the reader feel like they know what they should be taking away from it and to leave them on sure footing. "Salt Lake City" and "airport" introduces a further mystery that the protagonist knows something about and the reader doesn't, and they may feel like you're holding out on them.

Olivia.

Relief coursed through me. Feels overwritten. Does relief really "course through"? But also it's telling: could we see what this character does/how they react when they feel relieved?

She sat in a vinyl chair across from me I like the detail of "vinyl chair". Simple, but helps give a mental image. Staring at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.






140 comments:

Heidi J. Johns said...

The wolf circled me.
Slowly.
Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull.
It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos.
Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed.
The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled.
Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.
Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility. I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.
I couldn’t look.
I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her.


“Iven?”
Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.
Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport…
Olivia.
Relief coursed through me.
She sat in a vinyl chair across from me. Staring at me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.

Justin and Melinda said...

Chapter 1

The reek of rotting fish fluttered into my nostrils as I turned the yellowing pages. Or was it just fish? Even alive they smelled repugnant, making it hard to decipher. I kind of liked it. Being from out of town made my nose more sensitive. The library in my Colorado hometown only carried the scent of aged paper and dust. I snapped the book shut and placed it back on the shelf, finding no interest.
The light faded with the fuming clouds that had begun rolling in on this small town of Rockland, Maine. My mom had asked me to pick up the cream cheese she had forgotten and had told me to be quick if I wanted to stop and get a book.
I ignored this and continued browsing, wanting to take my time. After all, this was my first trip to the Rockland library without my mom tagging along. This summer my wallet finally carried a driver’s license, which meant more freedom. Every part of me needed this, even starved for it.
The fluorescent lights hummed above. They seemed to be kicking into overdrive as the light through the windows continued to weaken. They failed, making it dim between the towering bookshelves. The entire building screamed of neglect, but an irreplaceable character remained intact which, to me, was more important anyway.

Heidi J. Johns said...

Title: Pearl Edda
Genre: YA Fantasy

Unrepentant Escapist said...

so close

Josin L. McQuein said...

If I close my eyes now, I can sneak four minutes before the bell signals next class. Mr. Pace won't care, he's in his own world full of numbers and letters, and I lost track of what he was saying half an equation ago. A nap would be great...

...but then that blue bulb starts up again.

Everyone sits straighter in their seats. There's a pause in the cadence of Mr. Pace's words. The chalk breaks under the pressure of his halt, and his eyes flick left to the silent alarm over the window. He takes a breath, erases his stray mark, and starts over.

This time everyone listens because the sound of his voice gives us something to think about other than the light reflecting off our desks a half beat out of time with our hearts. It doesn't matter that the words are artificially slow, or that his voice is higher than usual, or that Mr. Pace makes a mistake. He never makes mistakes.

We don't look sideways, because no one wants to know that everyone else is as scared as they're trying not to be. Warnings aren't supposed to last this long.

Then the blue turns violet.

H.C.Reignoir said...

Lyulf’s presence was rarely required at the harbour. As the Rex, he had more pressing matters to attend to; taking a stroll around the docks was not a common occurrence. This was why, when the traders and sailors saw him amongst them that morning, waiting with the royal guard and Orator Fiona, they considered its import. It didn’t take them long to realise that it was only a few days after Imbolc, which could only mean one thing; new pupils would be arriving soon.
The Academia only accepted new pupils once a year. Soon after Imbolc, with the promise of change still fresh in the air, it was the time for new beginnings. Lyulf would greet the newcomers and Orator Fiona would document it all, like she always did. “Eerie, that one,” an old man whispered to a sailor. “She can chill your heart with a glance.”
As if to punctuate his point, she turned towards them. They scurried away quickly.
“Fiona…” Lyulf started. He was looking at the ship in the distance, just entering the bay, yet he also seemed aware of every movement around him.
“I didn’t intend to do anything,” she said defensively, “unlike you. Do you really plan to go through with it? Essentially attack them?”
“No one will get hurt. Most of the Orators are watching and you are right here to intervene if it is needed.”
“I don’t agree with this; there is surely another way to test a pupil’s competence.”

Eric said...

Oldfanged

Horror/comedy

OLDFANGLED
Chapter One

Grisly. Horrific. Baffling.
Those were the grave adjectives the nightly news anchors sprinkled throughout the top story of the eleven o’clock broadcast. The hype was appropriate for a change. Another bizarre murder had taken place. Carl Petnoy was oblivious to the late-breaking report, however, as he napped in his Barcalounger through the entire segment.
“Be safe,” the bottle-blonde live on the scene cautioned before sending it back to the studio.
“Good advice,” her hair-plugged male cohort behind the news desk agreed.
Twenty odd minutes later and the telecast was wrapping-up. In closing, the Channel Seven bobble heads briefly revisited the night’s top story, once more promising new details as the story developed. Then, like flipping a switch, they tossed aside their overly-rehearsed gravitas in exchange for a final bit of chirpy banter before they were played off with a blaring orchestral score.
As was all too often the case, Carl startled awake to the consequences of leaving the television’s volume up while he dozed. The musical crescendo threatened to trigger his tinnitus. If that happened the result would be a warbling screech in his ears that would leave him dizzy and imagining a drunken and tortured electronic song bird caged in his skull. Thankfully, however, this time he was spared.
He clapped violently to turn off the television. Too many claps. The apartment’s lights blinked out instead. A pain shot through his forearm. He was old. Pain was usually shooting somewhere. He ignored it.

Becca said...

The Forever Girl, Urban Fantasy

Everyone in town said I was crazy, and maybe I was. But they didn’t say this because they knew my secret. They said it because of my beliefs, as if any religion aside from their own was a phase they could pray someone out of.
Crazy Sophia Parsons. That’s me. Afflicted by a hissing in my mind, like a rattlesnake waiting to strike. No one would ever find out about the noise. Tonight would bring silence.
I lit two white candles on a small stone altar beneath my bedroom windowsill. The flames flickered and cast their shadows over the wooden dishes adorning the pentacle, each filled to the brim with herbs. Moonlight filtered through the trees outside, creating patchwork shadows on the rain-soaked grass below. With one last peek at my ritual notes, I folded them over and tucked them away. The paper’s edge sliced my fingertip and a drop of blood pearled on my skin. It didn’t hold the answers to any of my problems—not that I thought it would. I sucked on the cut to ease the sting.
As I lifted the first dish from the pentacle, sage overpowered the scent of the other herbs. I blew softly across the dish’s surface, uprooting the sage to conjure wisdom. It fell like snow flurries to the ground below, an offering to the earth.

Nathan Bransford said...

Okay - Heidi was the first to get chapter and genre in (even if separate comments) so I'm giving it to her.

Heidi J. Johns said...

Thank you!

Courtney said...

Dang, that was fast.

Liana Brooks said...

Just a little late... *sigh*

Heidi J. Johns said...

Just found a typo...doggone!

Unrepentant Escapist said...

Dancing with wolves... :)

H.C.Reignoir said...

What happens if there is a tie?
It appears that Josin, Eric, Becca and myself have posted at the same time! Still, Heidi was the first one. :)

Mine is a Fantasy Novel (I suppose it is Adult, I wouldn't want a 13-year-old reading it) and at the moment only has a working title.

Eric said...

I wouldn't sweat a typo, Heidi.

In my rush to add title and genre, I misspelled my title...only to then discover I already had in the post.

D'oh! and double D'oh!

Mira said...

It's true. Heidi and Justin/Melinda posted at the same time. I wonder if Blogger went alphabetically.

Nathan Bransford said...

They posted within the same minute, but Blogger still orders chronologically.

Mira said...

Okay - cool.

:)

Good luck, Heidi!

Josin L. McQuein said...

I'll probably add more later, but my first thought after finishing the snip was: "It's a dream? Meh."

The writing isn't bad, just a little overwritten IMO (like you polished this section beyond the shine.) It's clear what's going on, and other than a couple stylistic things, I could deal with the over-polish.

However, after the character woke up, I wouldn't read any further.

I'm one of those who hates dream sequence beginnings, and will stop reading as soon as the dreamer wakes. It always feels like the writer's off to the side shouting "Ha-ha! Gotcha!" and negates whatever connection I had with the characters and their plight. Why should I care if the danger isn't real?

It doesn't matter if the dream is a set-up for something later or some kind of premonition. I no longer trust the writer.

I don't mind dream sequences in the body of a story, but not at the beginning. Too many people start that way.

If you start where the story starts, and set-up the fact that the MC is having these kind of dreams, THEN you can work one in without it becoming off-putting.

Justin and Melinda said...

Haha I like the alphabetical idea! If I would have been smart enough to add my title and genre in the first place mine might have won. :( Oh well, what can you do. All I know is that after all the refreshing: I NEVER WANT TO SEE THE NAME TYRA AGAIN! :)

hannah said...

I didn't mind the dream opening, actually--but I have a feeling I'll be in the minority on this one. I thought it worked well.

The semi-colon error in the second paragraph really turned me off, though. I'm anal about semicolons.

The writing is pretty, but I agree with Josin that it might be a little overdone in places. But I like the use of sentence fragments and the scene painting is nice, though I think a little too extensive.

Thanks for sharing with us!

Julieanne Reeves said...

Monday's are going to be interesting.

Empty Refrigerator said...

Heidi,
Congrats on being the first!

I love this detail: "teeth so white the flames reflected off them." I could really see that. Also loved "popped and groaned" and "flames licked their way." I also liked the vinyl chair - vinyl is so synthetic -- a great counterpoint to the forest.

Personally, I don't mind the story starting off as a dream. I like tricks. But I do take the point that the technique of starting off with a dream is possibly overdone, so you may want to consider that. I was a bit pulled out of the story by some of the more dramatic phrasings - specifically, "silent dance amidst the chaos," "ensnared in death's fiery grip." I would consider dropping, "but unlike me, it had no desire to save her" because I think that sentence would be stronger without it (also consider dropping the word "somehow").

I think the suspense and buildup are good. You have an adrenalin-filled passage here. GOOD LUCK~!

John C said...

Whenever a book starts with a dream/waking up/reading/watching tv/some other mundane activity I lose interest pretty fast.

Dreams are a special category because it pulls the rug out from under the reader. You can have outlandish otherworldly starts by using a dream but the rest of the novel might be about harvesting pomegranates instead of fighting wolves.

If you start off talking about the dreams, that's a little different and maybe that'd work instead of starting in the dream.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

No problems with the writing at all, though I admit I read quickly, not much time today.

I've found RL and in fiction, dreams are far more interesting to the people having them than they are to anyone else. And I think they only belong in stories as an immediate impetus to act. They're a poor device to show character or motivation.

Just opinions, but I think widely held.

I'd rather see your character actually acting, doing, and learn about him that way. And I have no real sense of the story problem from this sequence, mostly because you've "tricked" me into thinking the dream was action so the message, and the messenger, feel unreliable.

Are you certain this is where your story starts?

Good luck with this and thanks for sharing!

Josin L. McQuein said...

LoL J&M, glad to know I wasn't the only one sitting on the "refresh" button.

Mesmerix said...

I thought the start was great, and then it ended as a dream sequence and went into something else.

Cons: I found the writing style between dream sequence and after to be like two different books. The transition was jarring, like two separate voices. Also, I didn't much like having such a cool beginning turned into a dream sequence and thereby losing the risk factor. "death's fiery embrace" seems overwrought.

Pros: I loved the opening "The wolf circled me." You used some great imagery with "the forest popped and groaned" and "black hackles ruffled." There's definite talent in there.

Emily White said...

I agree with Josin about the dream. I was a little put off that all this action that you spent describing in detail didn't really happen. However, I would have kept reading. I could see how the dream was important and how it possibly foreshadowed something.

All in all, a rather interesting first page. :)

Krista V. said...

The writing here is quite clean and readable, but I had a hard time orienting myself to the setting and characters. So much was happening so fast - and to characters I cared little about, since I didn't have time to get to know them - that I didn't connect with the story itself.

Then I found out the whole scene was a dream sequence and cared even less about what was going on.

Could there be a better place to start the story? One that has the stakes and/or level of conflict of this opening page, but that is actually real?

Good luck!

Amber J. Gardner said...

I read the first sentence and instantly thought of Twilight and wanted to stop reading. But that's probably a personal pet peeve.

The only other thing is the overabundance of adjetives and unncecesary description and it being a dream sequence.

Other than that, I do sort of wonder what's coming next.

Justin and Melinda said...

Just wanted to make sure first I said congrats Heidi! I like the description you use, but when it gets clustered together I tend to skim by it, not really reading the words. I thought your writing was clean, but agree the dream is risky. It will be interesting to see what Nathan says about that. Good job!

Kathryn Leigh said...

Heidi: I really liked the choppiness at the beginning. I was immediately drawn in.

The only thing I didn't like was that I felt a little jerked around. I was having trouble grounding myself in the world of the dream. Then, I had to readjust & ground myself again.

Overall, though, I really liked it. I wanted to know more.

Anonymous said...

A lot of good tension kept me on the page. A few overwritten sentences, passive verbs,and cliches would be best cleaned up, but that's just housekeeping. The important point is that you kept me reading with story leading. Thanks for sharing! (You are BRAVE.)

Jen Sadler said...

As a reader, I am interested in seeing where this is going. I think the dream will catch a YA Reader's interest, and keep it for awhile. I am interested in see where this is going, and I almost want to know more about the dream. (Granted, this is a 250 word limit.)
As a HS teacher, I would like to see more action, more suspense from the beginning. My students (okay, the boys) LIVE for the action in a novel.
Well done! It looks like a good start.

Thermocline said...

You had some nice details that hinted rather than being overt. I especially liked, "smoldering heaps littering the ground." That left a lot for me to imagine without you having to do all the work.

I'm afraid I am in the Don't Start With A Dream camp, though. Jumping right into another location disoriented me. It took a second for me to realize what was going on. The dream felt like a Prologue once I got past it.

kathrynjankowski said...

Thanks for sharing your work with us, Heidi. You're a brave soul.

I always appreciate a story that pulls me in right away. You did that, but based on how you chose to focus your details, it felt like the opening was more about the wolf and the forest than the MC.

The flow seemed uneven to me. It appears the narrator's initial goal is surviving a wolf attack and that rather abruptly segues into looking for "her".

I, too, lost interest once it was clear this opening was a dream. Don't get me wrong, I love dream sequences, but when they come at the beginning I feel cheated.

You've got some solid writing chops, Heidi. I'll bet you can find a way to work in the dreams after you've established the basic conflict. Good luck! ;-)

Ishta Mercurio said...

My original post got rejected for being too long, I'll have to do it as a two-parter. Here's part one:

Heidi, kudos for getting your excerpt in there, and thank you for sharing your work and putting it out there for us all to learn from.

My first thought upon reading it was: Wow - talk about starting with action! I really like the effect you create with this opening: you place us in a huge action scene right off the bat, then jerk us out of it when the MC awakes and we see that it was only a dream. It's a literary and cinematic device that not everyone uses, and some people like it and some dislike it. I like it, and I think you did it well.

There are two moments in your excerpt - the very beginning with "The wolf circled...its skull." and later with "The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled." - that didn't flow well for me when I read than. I felt that the use of periods slowed down the pace more than felt comfortable for me as a reader, and it might be useful to experiment with semicolons and commas in those sections.

I thought the lines "It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them" and "Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos" were really well-done; they both showed us small details that lent to a larger mental image of what was going on.

I also appreciated the way you described the forest fire - again, the details you chose to show us and the way you described them worked for me. However, when you described the howls slicing through the inferno's roar, I wondered: why aren't the narrator and the wolf he/she is fighting getting burned up, too? Are they in a clearing? Are they just lucky? Why aren't they choking on smoke? It also bothers me that I still don't know the gender of the narrator - I'm female, so when reading work written in the first person I tend to think of the MC as being female until I see a name (unless there's something really obvious that tells me otherwise, like taking a trip with the Boy Scouts). So perhaps think of how you can work some of that information in a little earlier.

In the line, "I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility" I wonder if "taunted" is really what you want to say here. Speaking only for myself, this brought up images of the wolf turning around and goading the narrator onwards, while I think that what you mean is that the narrator is frustrated by the fact that he/she can't keep up but desperately wants to. Of course, as with everything I say here, that could just be me.

I think that the line "I couldn't look" is redundant, and tells rather than shows. The sentence before it, "I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground," shows us so well what is going on and how the narrator feels about it that you don't need the "I couldn't look" part.

"I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal" - great! Now, in two short sentences, we have both objective and conflict. Nicely done.

Then we learn the MC's name - Iven - and I think it's a guy, but I'm honestly not 100% positive. This is the trouble with interesting first names. I'm assuming it will become really obvious later on, but I would think twice about letting your reader go beyond the first page before giving them a really good sense of who the narrator is.

I liked the way the images fluttered through Iven's mind, but I expected them to relate to the dream, so I was confused by "Salt Lake City" and "airport". The mention of Olivia brought me back to the dream, and I assume that she is the girl the wolf was chasing. So that section could be cleaned up, or clarified with more details.

Ishta Mercurio said...

And here's Part Two! (Sheesh; who knew Google could be so picky!)

Also: I have no idea of who Olivia is, and what her relationship is to the narrator, other than that the narrator worries for her safety. Is she a sister, cousin, mother, girlfriend, best friend? I understand that this is just the first page, so if you get to this information soon, that's fine. If not, then maybe try to work in the information sooner.

Overall, I thought this was a great first page. You have a very distinctive style which is clear and consistent throughout the excerpt, and that is something that I personally find very challenging, so well done for that! And your descriptive prose is wonderful. Just be careful of leaving us hanging for too long on details like the identity of the main character. I was a little confused by the ending, wondering if there were really going to be man-eating wolves in this book or if they would remain the stuff of nightmares, but I would most definitely read on to find out. Well done on this excerpt, and on putting yourself out there.

I hope that you found some of my comments helpful, and as always, one person's critique is only one opinion. Take what works for you, try different things, and leave the rest. Good luck!

D. G. Hudson said...

Congrats, Heidi, on your speed, and being selected for page critique. I have this picture in my head of all the entrants at their computers with their finger poised over the 'submit' button. What a tense moment.

I look forward to reading Nathan's redline comments, and the comments of the others. Sorry, but your story lost me because of the subject matter (wolves)and the dream sequence at the very beginning. I agree it would have been better used after we had met the character having the dream.

Mary McDonald said...

At first, I was reminded of opening of The Call of the Wild, not a bad thing, as it's one of my favorite books but then it was all a dream. Hmmm...not sure I like that. I suppose later in the story the dream might be important.

MJR said...

I liked this opening. I agree with the others that you should stick with details that bring the reader right into the forest with the wolf and to avoid any abstract fancy phrases that distance the reader from the scene, ie "death's fiery grip." The words "its" is repeated a lot--a minor quibble. I'd like to know a bit more about where she is--sitting in a vinyl chair doesn't place her in any setting--is she in an airport waiting room?

Amethyst said...

Congrats Heidi! And thanks for sharing your piece.

I enjoyed the fact that the action started right away. This is a great way to attract the attention of the reader. But I agree with Josin about the dream sequence. For me personally, the fact that it is a dream sequence cancels out the action you describe from the beginning, because in technicality, the action isn't real.

If the 'dream' factor was removed, I would definitely want to know what happens next and what happened before (the background of the story), leading up to this point. The tension and anticipation of the action is there, and I really enjoyed it.

The dream sequence is a stylistic choice of an author to foreshadow what is or may come and, IMO, gives too much away too soon. It leaves me with the feeling of "WHEN is it going to happen" rather than being left in suspense of "WHAT is going to happen."

As a reader, I enjoy the latter question more so than the first.

Ermo said...

Hey Heidi -

Congrats! I WILL be the fastest refresher one of these weeks.

Loved, loved, loved this: "so white the flames reflected off them."

The whole wolf dance thing was really well written and I was hooked.

Then you went all "this is just a dream - haha" on me and I was sad. I'm just not a big fan of that kind of hook.

Also, I think maybe you should have an exclamation point after "Olivia."

I think you are great at pacing and description and I bet you tell a heck of a story. Good luck!

J. T. Shea said...

When is NRSIBTOIWAKOGO Critique Monday? I can't wait! And should the word 'drawrings' be said in a drawrl?

All the entries are interesting. Bravo to winner Heidi J. Johns for ignoring the supposed 'rule' against beginning with a dream! Justin and Melinda include the weather. Eric puts his werewolf in a Barcalounger. Although there is no rule against Barcalounging werewolves. Yet.

Regarding PEARL EDDA, 'Dances With Wolves' indeed, but a dance of death rather than the 'getting to know you' dance in Mr. Costner's movie. I take it 'on point' is meant in the ballet rather than military sense.

I guessed from the start it was a flashback, flash forward, or dream fragment. I like dream beginnings because of the double awakening, first from the dream that is everyday 'reality' and then from the novel's dream into its internal reality. This seems doubly appropriate for fantasy, though reading even the most 'realistic' novel has a dreamlike quality.

I commented last week about the limitations of this critique exercise. Nobody who reads all or part of PEARL EDDA again will know less about it than we do. I do know it is about an intrusion by Norse gods and monsters into our present day reality, so the dream opening is not the setup for disappointment feared by some commenters.

Anonymous said...

Oh Nathan, I heart you for using the trust fall analogy.

Mesmerix said...

Nathan - I just want to say how extremely helpful these critique segments are. It's one thing to say "do this" and another to show us exactly what you mean. Please keep them up!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it until he woke up. I really wanted to know what was going to happen next. I hope that this scene is somewhere in your novel where it is not a dream because it was exciting.

One the dream ended, I was disappointed because you pulled me out of a moment I was so engrossed in, but you have intrigued me enough to read on.

Mayowa said...

Great 250 and great critique.

Only place i disagree is that I actually quite liked this line "concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc."

Isn't that what personification is for?

Andrea said...

I don't want to rehash what's already been said. I just wanted to thank you for sharing. I really enjoy reading these critique exercises.

Nathan Bransford said...

mayowa-

In this case I worry that because this is opens in a fantasy world the reader is just beginning to establish the "rules" of the world. Are the embers actually living/conscious? They could be in fantasy! If it's just supposed to be evocative I think there's another way of tackling it that doesn't leave the reader wondering if they're actually alive.

Maya said...

Hi Heidi!

I enjoyed the standoff with the wolf, but I wished it wasn't a dream. If this is supposed to be something that happens later, perhaps a flashback frame is more effective than starting with a dream. That way at least you know that the standoff actually happens!

As for the descriptions, a lot of the things Nathan pointed out didn't bother me, but I did feel there was an overall sense of embellishment over accuracy in the descriptions. Still, you did paint quite a picture, and I'm OK with that style of writing, particularly in a tense scene. Maybe the descriptions weren't meant to be completely literal, but more to portray a feeling.

Just my two cents. Good luck!

treeoflife said...

First of all, I got into this excerpt right away.

After just a few lines, I'm thinking, "Knife fight with a wolf? Cool!"

Hooked me right away.

That said, some of the descriptions lost me. After reading about the flames reflecting in the teeth, I got distracted. I was thinking, "How did the wolf get such white teeth? Does it brush or whiten?" and then was thinking that if I were holding a knife and staring down a wolf, I probably wouldn't be looking for reflections on it's teeth. I'd probably focus on whether it's about to bite me or not.

Also, I don't like the use of semi-colons. That's a few too many semi-colons for the first page. For my taste anyways.

And the "just kidding" intro... Didn't work for me. I liked the wolf knife fight! After that I don't want to read about someone sitting in an airport with their significant other.

Great start though. And thanks again Nathan for doing this.

Mira said...

Okay, first, I have to leave for class, so I'll add my own comments about the work later.

But I do want to say I got the flavor of fantasy from this, and I love fantasy. Cool, Heidi. :)

I'm also interested to see, Nathan, that you'll be critiquing different things.

I'm also interested to see, Nathan, that you are so good at this. Very, very, very, very, very good.

I want your eyes on my work. When I write it, that is. I must find a way. It must happen. It must. I just have to figure out how. Maybe saying 'it must happen' over and over will do it.

You know, have you thought about giving away these critiques as a prize or perk? Just a thought.

Okay, off to be educated.

Heidi, you brave (and lucky soul) - thanks for sharing your work!

abc said...

Sandwich!

I felt the opening was compelling enough to keep me reading and find out who this Iven and Olivia are and why they are in an airport and he's dissociating/dreaming such wild stuff.

The fact that it was a dream didn't really bug me b/c I figured--and maybe because it is a commonly used technique in fantasy--that these Visions were going to be useful for the character and that they meant something. Something we would get to later. Perhaps a future flash. FUTURE FLASH! LOST!

But I have to agree with the overwritten part. It feels like it is trying too hard to be poetic. Not necessary. Just tell the story.

Seems like the story is there. I want to know if that scary wolf is going to get "her". Thanks for sharing, Heidi!

Thomas Taylor said...

I needed to know about the fire at the same time as the wolf. Also, that such a dramatic dream could end so abruptly with the mere opening of eyes was a bit of a downer for me.

My novel starts with a dream, but it takes a whole chapter and dreams are central to the plot. I think it has to be all or nothing with dreams.

Thanks for sharing, Heidi. I like the imagery.

Kate said...

Nathan, I love this new feature! Double yay.

The author definitely has an 'eye' for detail, something I could take a few cues for in my own writing. Nathan is oh so on, of course, with the overwritten-ness. I'm a big fan of understated drama/intensity. And while the staccato sentences definitely add some suspense, the technique feels a tad overused in the piece.

I always remember the bit in Strunk/White about using a 5 cent word instead of dollar piece word. Or something like that. It takes some discipline, but it comes in handy when I'm reaching for the top shelf. For example, 'caught' instead of 'ensnared.' I think it's very tempting to use a beautiful-sounding word when it fits. But in the bigger picture, sometimes it's too much.

I know Nathan took issue with the taunting, goal-making wolf, but I thought it gave the critter some personality, instead of it reading like a regular old wolf. Perhaps there's another way to achieve the same effect with more precise descriptions.

Good job! Brave gal!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I found this helpful on a number of levels. Thanks to Nathan and Heidi!

Heidi, I liked this. Very dramatic. I think with the revisions Nathan suggests, it will be even better. The only good reason to start with a dream, in my opinion, is if your protag is a seer of some sort.

Good luck!

Girl with One Eye said...

I liked being right in the action. "it's ears flat against its skull." great image of an animal on the ready.

I did feel it was a bit overwritten ("concealed ember..." "ensnarled in deaths...." "Relief coursed...")and hard to process all the imagery you gave us. I might would simply the descriptives in places.

Once I found out we were in a dream, I thought "great, now back to the boring real world." Maybe italics the beginning??? So the reader expects it.

I'm not sure if the colons/semi-colons are necessary or grammatically correct.

I am intrigued with where this story will go "...unlike me, it had no desire to save her." and I love a male POV (I don't find them often). Great job. Thanks for throwing yourself out there for the wolves...ahem, no pun intended. *wink wink*

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I just had a thought:

Nathan, would it be bad to start with,"The nightmares were getting worse."

And then go into the description of the wolf-person stand-off?

Nobody would feel fleeced then, and it would still be dramatic.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Okay, Heidi, I checked your profile and now that I know a bit more about your MS, the beginning makes more sense. At least, I can understand why you chose to start it that way.

Having said that, I think you've got a genre where the dream sequence is more common than in most. It comes off as "the dream of impending destiny", which certainly works given your topic, but I still think starting it with the *real* action would serve your story better. (Especially since you're butting it up against the "kids at an airport" scene, which implies they're headed somewhere and you're going to change the setting again soon.

Becca said...

This sucks, because I'm always in school when this thing happens. I have no chance of getting to it in time.

Anonymous said...

Love the opening. Hero versus wolf, knife fight, forest in flames. Excellent. I'll admit I was disappointed it was just a dream, but I was intrigued enough to read on.


Favorite line: "Its body on point." Gave me a vivid picture and included the wolf's intent, all in a simple four word sentence. Beautiful.

Least favorite: "Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing. The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport…"

All of this seemed a tad out of order to me. I think it would have worked better if the the Fire ... wolves. . . etc part had come after the heart racing ( the POV character is slowly orienting himself, going from dream to reality) and THEN he makes the statement that the dreams are getting more vivid. As it is, you have a moment of clarity (the dreams getting more vivid) and then describe "images running through a muddled brain." This REALLY pulled me out of the story.

Overall, I loved the opening and could picture it well. I would like to read more. Thanks so much for sharing!

Nathan, if I read a submission first chapter where I was being led to believe a character was being chased by a shark, only to find out it was a game of Marco Polo, I would have been tempted to send the author an "I want to buy your book" letter with a P.S. of "just kidding".

Unrepentant Escapist said...

Those were like all the comments I was going to make, but written better.

You ought to make this a career, Nathan!

Oh wait...

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I didn't have a problem with the dream sequence. As far as reflective teeth - I think it is the saliva (i.e., thin layer of clear fluid on tooth enamel) that would be reflecting the light - not sure exactly how you would include that in a scene, though.

I am reminded of Jack London - might be useful exercise to read passages side by side, to become more conscious as to how language choices add/drain tension from a scene...

Also, if you're going to be so descriptive in dream sequence, you need similar amount of description (in my opinion), i.e., more than a single vinyl chair, to anchor the reader in the actual "reality" the dreamer is returning to.

I might expand like this: "She sat in a vinyl chair across from me. A little ways away, at the ticket desk, an older couple in matching blue jean jackets were politely but intensely disagreeing with a harried ticket agent. Beyond them, an airport screener waved a large paddle up and down a middle-aged man's body. The paddle was blunt and frivolous-looking, a mere toy, compared to the dream knife in its sheath..."

Ok, no need to jump all over me for "embroidering" a bit on scene as presented...I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the characters were seated at an airport...just my perspective, maybe condense wolf-fire scene by 50%, really tighten it, and then add on equal amount of description to vinyl chair. I remember in Tim Burton's Halloween-meets-Christmas movie, he poured so much of his creativity into the Halloween part of things, and then didn't seem to expand an equal amount of effort creating the Christmas Town...that it was a bit of a letdown...and then in Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club (and I do love that book!), it seemed more creative effort went into the reminiscence parts than the "present day."

***

I did enjoy reading this though, and wanted to find out more - one of the comments here said the novel was about "intrusion by Norse gods and monsters into our present day reality," and that's interesting - a great premise - keep going with your novel!

reader said...

Who says Mondays suck if we get to do this? Thanks again, Nathan for keeping it interesting.

Congrats Heidi. I think your writing is quite tight. I agree though, that some places feel a tad overdone -- flames reflecting off of teeth was sort of off-putting, if only because it interupted the flow as I had to stop and figure out how that would happen. I was SUPER excited until I found out it was only a dream, as dreams starting off YA books are cliche.

Overall, though, I really liked it. You can write, girl!! Good luck to you! :)

Latoya Alloway said...

You are spot on with your critique, Nathan. Heidi, you write well but if you take his suggestions your writing will be better.

"Page Critique Mondays" are an aweome addition to your blog. Thank you for that. I hope to one day submit my page first. But if not, I am learning alot from critiques you've given other people. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you wrote:

Since we now know this was a dream, it's important to help the reader feel like they know what they should be taking away from it and to leave them on sure footing. "Salt Lake City" and "airport" introduces a further mystery that the protagonist knows something about and the reader doesn't, and they may feel like you're holding out on them.


I'm not sure I follow. Don't authors all hold out on the readers? Isn't that what the great build up is all about? The author knows and the reader doesn't..

I've read this comment by you before - could you please elaborate what you mean?

Thanks so much!

Kelly Wittmann said...

Really love this new feature, Nathan; I hope you keep it for a while.

Marilyn Peake said...

Some of your images are awesome, e.g. the flickering flames and the person and wolf moving together and watching each other, guarding against each other.

I found many of the sentence fragments jarring because they seemed to be used somewhat randomly in places where a fluid sentence would have been better. For example, I think that "The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled." would have flowed much better as "The animal paused, its body on point, its black hackles ruffled." The second paragraph "Slowly" especially shouldn’t have been its own paragraph, as "slowly" isn’t a strong enough statement to deserve its own paragraph.

Mentioning the wolf’s white teeth pulled me out of the story because I started thinking about how wild animals don’t usually have pure white teeth, how they’re usually more yellow, how flames probably wouldn’t reflect off a wolf’s teeth, etc. Reflections of the flames might have danced in a wolf’s eyes, however, and that might have allowed for a more menacing image.

I also found it jarring when I discovered this was a dream. I realize, though, that the power of the dreams suggests that the dreams are important. If that’s the case, if the main character is a seer or something like that, I think the background of the importance of the dreams should be developed at the beginning of the novel, rather than a dream itself.

Good luck with this! Overall, your imagery suggests the potential for a powerful story.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yes, definitely authors hold out on readers. The author knows what's going to happen and the reader doesn't.

But there's a difference between an author knowing and a protagonist knowing something and not filling in the reader. If you think of most mysteries, usually we know about as much as the protagonist knows. The mystery is watching the protagonist try and figure it out.

This isn't an exact rule of thumb, but that's roughly where the line is drawn between preserving mystery vs. holding out on the reader. We don't know what the author knows, but we (usually) need to know what the protagonist knows.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Wow, your critiques are identical to mine, especially regarding the white =/= reflective part. I felt like this sample had a lot of pretty-ish descriptions that upon further examination could be improved or make more sense. But I also feel like it might be almost there, and most of the tweaks needed would be relatively minor.

I love this feature!

Also, how awesome is it that my word verification is "skill"?

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, I'm not sure I agree with those who don't like the short sentences. That staccato rhythm can really help drive a sense of action. Don't be scared of short sentences. Sometimes they can really help build tension.

Nathan said...

hard to follow up Nathan Bransford's comments. Very nice imagery evoked in the descriptions. One thought on the second line is if you would like to still somehow emphasize that idea of "slowly" circling without saying it flat out, try pairing the idea with an image instead.

For example, a paired image of a clock's second hand, "circling, the soft, steady thud of footfalls counting down my remaining moments before it attacked..."

Just an idea that I might think about there.

Joanne Bischof said...

Ok time to bookmark this blog! Talk about serious nitpicking- but I love it! Thanks for being open and honest by posting your story, Heidi. And thanks to Nathan for explaining to us how agents and editors think!

Emily Cross said...

Absolutely brilliant new segment.

thank you so much Nathan for this, I feel like I'm getting personal lessons or something lol.

Its funny about the you mention the short sentences, I use them frequently for tension but have gotten critiqued about not making full sentences??

Heidi - well done, you're very brave to post :)

Elie said...

I liked the dream.
Yes, there was a jolt, but in a good way. Clearly there's some psychic stuff going on.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a wonderful part of this blog - both because we all get treated to an agent's view, and because we also get the opportunity to think about someone's work and see what others think. This is a great learning experience.

Nathan, I have been wondering if, since you focus on YA and adult manuscripts, we should stick to those categories, or if something more MG (novels targeted at the 9-12 age group, like the Percy Jackson series or Harry Potter or Roald Dahl's work - not that I'm comparing my work to any of those books, because those books are AMAZING, but just to give a clearer sense of the shelf my book might be on if it were in a bookstore) would also be okay?

Nathan Bransford said...

ishta

I'd be okay critiquing middle grade.

J. T. Shea said...

Interesting comments! Nathan and commenters think Heidi's piece a bit overwritten. Oddly enough, I might agree if it were NOT a dream. The almost melodramatic tone seems to suit a dream. Remember too that ANY of the entries might turn out to be a dream AFTER the first 250 words! And we have no idea what second and later 'shiny objects' are coming, to use Nathan's apt phrase.

I am perhaps more tolerant than some commenters of abeyance and suspense in the first 250 words. It all depends on WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! Raising reader questions is fine, provided the writer answers them soon if needs be, or later if they are matters of ongoing suspense. Nor do I see reader misunderstanding as a problem, provided it is corrected quickly and the correct story is no less entertaining than what the reader thought was happening or going to happen. In other words, no long-term or repetitive ‘rug pulling’.

I must again disagree with Nathan regarding tense changes. I do not take 'Each of us biding our time.' as a tense change, since it could be read as 'Each of us WAS biding our time.' But there could be a singular versus plural clash. Would 'Each of us biding HIS time.' not be better? But that might cause a gender problem!

The sentence about the wolf having 'no desire to save her' tells us the dreamer DOES wish 'to save her', which is not otherwise stated. The dreamer's imputing thoughts to the wolf (and even embers!) is again something I would hold fire on until I find out where it's going. But Nathan’s warning about the literalism problem in Fantasy and Science Fiction is very apt. I believe it’s called subjunctive tension. A classic example is ‘His eyes slid down the front of her dress.’ (And plonked on the floor!)

Likewise regarding the difference between the author withholding information and a first person POV protagonist doing the same (withholding information from himself, effectively) but I do not see that as a problem in the PEARL EDDA excerpt, particularly since the dream state is one in which we all withhold information from ourselves. Most dreams are not lucid.

Steppe said...

Knowing the sex of the wolf makes or breaks the bit. Foreshadowing two strong female characters staring down a future third strong female character seems very female. If the wolf was a dangerous male willing to sacrifice everything to defeat the protagonist and her accomplice it gets interesting. Your imagery is excellent and N's flow comments are succinct. Play the scene out before writing (actually do it alone in a room). Hold the cold steel blade against your thigh as you spin involuntarily hoping not to fall reawakened(foreshadows its a dream) by the glint of chaotic firelight off the bared salivated teeth.

The beginning of a story is like writing prose or poetry and you hooked into that quite well. I have stared down dogs and had them circle me; they do it quick to throw you off guard and reach your flanks to disable your escape. The human reaction is a spin effect on the ball of the dominant launching foot (left for me) front of the foot. It is genetically programmed into us to dodge animals.


"He was statuesque eying my flanks, my left foot slowly rose to the ball and toes. I pushed with my other foot spinning involuntarily as he suddenly circled: only the knife I wanted to drive into his throat protected me from losing my power to escape. Hard teeth met cold steel at my hip. He retreated a step and a half; his first lunge deflected. His still open mouth a burning temptation to drive my fist so fast and deep into his throat that I could break the jaw and stop him from ripping into my fleshy thigh to lay bare the complex muscles below...
Reawakened by glint of chaotic firelight off the veneer of saliva on bared teeth I forced myself upward hoping to surface.
I was growing desperate to awaken from this horrible reoccurring nightmare."

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I'd agree with Nathan's comments, but I also think the structuring of the opening is a little off. I think it's where and when the details of the scene are presented. The character is in an inferno, a burning forest, but it takes a long time to work this out clearly. Yes, there is the danger of the wolf, but I don't think it would preclude the danger of the burning forest. The fire all around would be a huge part of the sensory experience of that moment. I think it has to be there immediately, right from the start. ie, something like "The wolf circled me in the burning forest."

Otherwise I have to go back and sort of re-edit the scene in my mind. The timing isn't right, so I sort of say "Oh, there's a fire" and then "Oh, the whole forest is burning!" and then "oh, the whole forest is burning and a whole pack of wolves is going up in smoke and wails!"

I think if you get the sequencing right you'll get the big picture first, and then you can zoom in here and there on the details where appropriate.

Best of luck!

Nathan Bransford said...

Good point, Bryan/Ink. Agreed.

Kermit Rose said...

"The dreams were more getting vivid"


This phrase makes clear that the
"just kidding" opening is an integral part of the plot to be developed.

Kermit Rose

Heidi J. Johns said...

I’ve been waiting all day, wondering when I should jump in on this…and now I feel like I should have been jumping in all along.

First, thank you, Nathan! You've given me some great insights and things to chew on. At the risk of sounding brown nosy and cheesy, I truly am honored that you took the time to critique this. You seem to really care about your readership and your craft, and I know many echo that sentiment!

Second, thanks, readers! Your honest critiques are very helpful. Thick skin is something one develops quite quickly in this business, and I appreciate both the good and the bad. I also appreciate that everyone has been playing nice. There have been loads of insights from you all as well, and I feel very fortunate.

Interesting and excellent exercise.

I also have gone back and forth with the dream. (And yes, it does come back later in the story.)

The 250 word cap was difficult as well. I want to say, “But, there’s so much moooorrrre….” :) However, I do understand the significance of catching the reader on the first page.

I also think this is another place where the exercise on the 1 sent, 1 para, 2 para pitch can be useful.

Hopefully when a first page is read, the page didn't just appear magically and by itself (I now have visions of first pages falling from the sky or being pulled out of cereal boxes.). More likely, either a query with a pitch or a book with a blurb came with it. And I think (like JT Shea mentioned), if you knew a little bit about the premise of each one pager, the enticement to read more might be greater. But, again, the writer can’t rely solely on that either.

Thanks, again. I, of course, would love to hear more. :)

Firetulip said...

Just a short commet that this book is ranking # 75 on Authonomy and I already commentted there. Good luck with it once it hits the Editor's desk.

Talei said...

"The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled." - I love this too, and I agree on the short staccato rhythm. Also, that image made me pause, and take in the scene before the chase began. I like that.

Well done Heidi for posting first! ;)

Thanks Nathan for a great lesson in critiquing, I have learnt so much in this quick exercise that I'm feeling rather giddy! ;) What a great Monday post!

Stephen Prosapio said...

Nathan,
An awesome and FAN-tastic new feature. I've been fortunate to have my work critiqued by literary agents in the past and it's always amazing how different it is than some of the advice heard in writer's groups.

Hopefully these "sessions" with you help us all be both better writers and critique givers.

Your nit about the wolf's teeth is so spot on. As I read that I knew it was "off" but couldn't place it and had to "power through" rather than just flow through the reading.

That same line also gave me a "HUH?" moment when it threw out there the detail about fire. This is a problem I have and am working on in my own writing (and my agent always calls me on). There is a difference between a teasing detail that makes the reader want to know more and one that has us go...HUH? To that point there had been no mention of fire and to throw it out there in a reflection of the wolf's tooth just didn't work for me.

Anyway just my 2 cents. Heidi kudos to you for sharing this and congrats on some pretty clean prose that we can "debate over" some of the finer points.
:-)

T. Anne said...

I like the tension it created. Too bad it was just a dream. Maybe the dream is prophetic and I can get my real action scene later? ;) Great writing.

Chassily Wakefield said...

First, Nathan, thank you so much for "Page Critique Monday"! This is a fantabulous feature, like a mini master's session for aspiring writers. Invaluable. Whole new vistas of enlightenment and understanding have opened up already.

Second, to Heidi, awesome excerpt! And congratulations on the critique. You're a brave woman.

I enjoyed your 250 words and definitely wanted to read more. If the writing is clean and engaging, as in this case, then I'm willing to go along with a potentially problematic device like opening with a dream sequence. I wanted to continue and had that sense of "hurry, hurry!" that makes for a fast, entertaining read.

I also really enjoyed your evocative imagery. As a fellow member of the Overwriter's Club, I have printed out Nathan's comments to use as a measuring stick when I enter revisions. I might not agree on all items (I liked the detail of the gleaming teeth reflecting the flames, for example), but I could understand where he was coming from. However, for me personally, I liked your style, word choice and voice.

Thank you for being a courageous guinea pig for us all to learn from, and best of luck to you with your writing and career!

Leanne said...

To Nathan, thank-you so much for taking the time to do Page Critique Monday. I am learning so much. I have a long way to go with my writing. To Heidi, thank-you for your courage. I only hope one day I can do the same thing. Keep up the good work.

Amanda Sablan said...

Never fear, anyone. If you love what you do enough, I don't see how you couldn't improve. :]

Marti said...

This was extremely helpful - thank you!

The Zuccini said...

Maybe you can try the opening without the dream? Or maybe reorder so the dream comes after?

Susan said...

This definitely gave me a sense of Twilight--start in danger (the vampire and death), but REALLY start on the mundane (in a car, on the way to Forks). Since it's been done a lot by Meyer loyalists, be careful about your opening become run-of-the-mill.

I also think the in-danger intro would be more breath-catching if the wolf DIDN'T run away; the protag runs away, if you will, by opening his eyes and the "it was all a dream" bit.

So its sort of like two letdowns in a row rather than breath-catcher on top of breath-catcher.

But your writing is strong! The pacing and highs and lows and undulations of the story just need to be tweaked a bit.

Good luck with it!

Kristan said...

I had the same thoughts/feelings as treeoflife. That said, I would have kept reading even though the "just kidding, it's a dream" thing bugged me, because it was definitely engrossing.

Thanks again to Nathan and the intrepid Pearl!

RC Reviser said...

Heidi--I think you have a potential opening scene that can grip the reader right away. I'm interested to learn about the events that led to the wolf circling.

Nathan--Great value add for the blog. Wasn't sure how this would look in action, but this feature is a great new reason to look forward to Mondays.

I had a question about your book and revision. You may have addressed it in a previous post. In case you haven't, how much has Jacob Wonderbar changed since you first submitted your MS? Of that change, how much was pre and post inking your deal?

I'm working on an MS and found your post about being a reviser to be so true. Revising has been taking me longer than writing the first draft.

thanks as always.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Whew - I just now got a chance to look in again. Fascinating posts, everybody!

Re: a middle grade would be okay, too - great! Thanks, Nathan.

Dan said...

I am a strong believer that almost any dream sequence should be cut. It's a hacky way of foreshadowing, a clumsy mechanism for exposition, and a phony way to add action to a story lacking it.

The story is the stuff that the characters do, and the stuff that happens to them. Dreams do not happen, and, by definition, are not part of the story.

Unless the book's core thematic exploration is about the nature of dreams, and the dream sequences are a real structural element, they don't belong in the book. In other words, if you aren't Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel or Terry Gilliam, skip the dreams.

I think a lot of writers go to dream openings because they have been led to believe they need to open on an action beat, and the dream seems like a good way to achieve that goal. But you don't need to start with a fight; you need to start with the story.

The idea that the opening needs to be an action sequence is a misinterpretation of the rule that you should start with the beginning of the story, with the things that happen, rather than with backstory, world-building, info-dumping or exposition.

Opening on an action beat is often a bad idea, because it focuses on the mechanics of the action rather than introducing the characters. If your action beat reveals something about the characters, it can be a fine opening, but a lot of times it doesn't.

An unhelpful action opener looks like this:


MC is fighting somebody. The opponent punches, MC blocks. MC counters, but the opponent dodges. Then MC sweeps his leg and knocks the opponent down. MC smiles.


We don't know anything about the characters, so we are not invested in this fight or its outcome. And at the end of this, we don't know anything about the characters that we didn't know before, other than that they know how to fight, and that MC is maybe a little better than the opponent.

A more helpful action beginning would look like this:


Bully antagonist punches MC in the face. MC falls down, and rubs at his injured nose. MC's hand comes away bloody, so MC smears the blood on the bully's clean white sneakers. Bully, enraged, punches MC again. MC figures it was worth it.


Here, at least, we've learned that our MC is physically vulnerable, but he can be a little bit vindictive and a little bit masochistic. He's kind of dark, and that's interesting.

But the violence or the action isn't what draws the reader in; it's the conflict, it's story happening. Action scenes, like sex scenes can be exciting, but they're rarely the meat of the narrative. The story and its tension lends punch to the action sequences, not the other way around.

Consider this possible opening, which utilizes a much lower-key conflict:


MC gets on a bus. He's wearing a thousand-dollar suit, but it's all rumpled and dirty. He's got a black eye and dried blood crusted on his ear. Bus Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC pulls out his billfold, and it's stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. He peels one off and hands it to the driver. "This is all I got." Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC says: "How about you keep the change?" Bus Driver shrugs and pockets the hundred. Bus Driver: "If you've got all them Bennies, what're you doing riding the bus?" MC: "How about you keep your questions, too?"


The conflict in this scene is that the guy wants to get on a bus, and doesn't have exact fare. But that's all you need to do to put us into the story, because things are happening here. What's this guy been doing? Why is he on the bus? Where did he get the money?

Nathan Bransford said...

RC-

Quite a bit has changed actually. Truthfully I'm not yet done completely but will probably post about it at some point.

Heidi J. Johns said...

This was great, everyone! Thanks again!

Nathan, would it be okay if I posted your critique on my blog?

Also, since some of you talked about reading more, here's a shameless plug...

PEARL EDDA is about the ancient Norse world colliding with modern day Montana on the eve of the Norse world’s demise. (Still working on that 1 sentence pitch.... :))

Like Firetulip mentioned, I've uploaded a portion of the book on Harper Collins’ website: Authonomy. I don't want to put a link on Nathan's comments (not sure how that messes with Blogger), so you may have to google Authonomy.

Off to revise and edit....

Sea said...

Thanks so much for doing this, and everyone for all your comments. It's nice to see some consistent messages there.

One thing I'm wondering though is, have most published novels been gone through with such a fine-tooth comb? While there are many valid criticisms that need addressing, it seems to me that they go beyond that.

Ie - the comment about the embers awaiting their turn, and a few of the less-than-perfect sentences - I'm sure I've read books that haven't been so carefully edited. At least it seemed that way to me.

On a similar note, I'm revising my novel at the moment, and find that I can drive myself insane because each sentence can be written about 100 different ways (not to mention each scene has numerous approaches) so how do you pick the right one?

Without 90 readers advising you that is...

Thanks!

Julia said...

Dear Heidi and Nathan,

I just wanted to add my two cents (probably less :)) here. Since this is a YA novel, I think while reviewing it, it makes sense to focus on the target audience. What might feel overwritten and overly dramatic to a forty-year-old would be just fine for a teenager. From a literary standpoint, Nathan's critique is spot-on. From the point of view of a 13-15-year-old, starting with a dream, with "just kidding", in a middle of things when so much is happening, is just the ticket.
I have not been following your blog long enough to know if you ever done this, but it will be interesting to hear your thoughts on YA literature and what makes a good YA novel beginning.

Dorothy Dreyer said...

I love this Page Critique Monday idea. It lets us into your head and gives us a better idea of what to look for in our own writing. Awesome!

heather said...

Heidi, I really like the imagery here. I agree with some of the folks who mentioned the language might be a little too flowery/over the top. Call me the pot calling the kettle black - I find myself guilty of the same thing all the time. I'm not bothered so much by the dream sequence, but I do feel 'ho-hum, back to the real world' once we're out of it. I think (as another earlier comment mentioned) that replacing this dream sequence action with some real action might better serve? And it would draw us closer to your character and give us some up front reason to root for him/her - or not.

I definitely dig your writing style in the dream sequence part. Your writing does feel somewhat if not drastically different as you move from the fantasy to the reality of your story. Not necessarily bad, just doesn't feel like it fits.

Great job! Way to go with the fast typing. :)

Victoria said...

Have to say - Josin,your opening looks really good. That's one I really wanted to read more of.

Heidi, I commend your bravery! However I'm with the majority on this; I won't buy a book that opens with a dream sequence.

I also agreed with the comments re the over-writing, though pared back, there are some nice word choices there.

What I was looking for as a fantasy opening was a hint of your 'concept.' I'm sure you've got something cool tucked away there - maybe shift it up front?

HTH.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Sea,

The more polished your book is, the better your chances. You can't expect anyone to look past flaws, particularly in this day and age, or hope that other people are going to catch them and fix them for you.

Yes, it's tricky. How to make each sentence work? But that's writing. It's about finding your own voice and trusting it. About pushing your words until they're original and true to you, about finding the rhythm and flow that pulls a reader onward.

I'm not sure there's any real way to master that other than to write a lot, and then write some more.

Best,
Bryan

Eric S said...

Don't start with a dream. I stop reading. Don't start with the alarm clock, or a phone ringing, or the character's stupid morning commute. Consider starting with something actually happening.

If the character were actually facing a wolf in the opening sequence, that would be pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of this new feature of the blog, but on re-reading some of Nathan's (and others) analysis, I hope the writer isn't discouraged. Overthinking in writing is bad -- but so is overthinking in critiquing. Because, you could take any single novel, award-winning, best-selling, or otherwise and grind them up in this type of over-analysis and the writer is left paralyzed, rethinking every single syllable.

Writers should strive for a union of words and ideas, no one is getting pubbed without some degree of revision and refinement.

BUT, at the same time, open ANY pubbed book and you can denigrate any of it. Even LOOKING FOR ALASKA, which was championed on the blog a few weeks back, has many similar problems -- Miles's constant lists are too numerous and cliche in YA; the phrase "I am concussed," makes him sound like an eighty year-old man; Miles himself is more of a witness to Alaska, than an active participant in the novel, he wants her, but takes no steps to make it happen and instead settles for Lara, the kind of inactivity that's a huge no-no for a main character; the Colonel being poor and living in a trailer with a waitress mom is cliche; the entire opening passage is filler, a place to dump the backstory of Miles not having friends, before he even gets to the boarding school, to any action; for that matter the entire prank subplot has zero momentum and only resurfaces to give an outward sign of making ammends with Alaksa's departure. And yet... the book is great. See the dangers of overthinking?


QUOTE FROM TEXT: "....My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast."

NATHAN'S RESPONSE: "...I had a hard time tracking this sentence. Is the detail that he/she is holding the knife against his/her thigh really necessary? And what exactly is meant by "turned with the beast"? Are they turning or are they actually circling each other and would that be a more precise description? "turned with the beast" makes it sound as if they're on a turntable. It's also not necessary to specify that "my fingers" gripped the knife - unless otherwise specified we're going to assume he/she is holding the knife in her hands, so saying "my fingers" feels redundant and "I gripped the knife" is sufficient...."

RC Revising said...

Nathan, thanks. I'd be interested to hear how much change came from your beta reader/agent/editor versus how much came from you and the ideas you had due to the passage of time.

Anon at 6:35--I think your point is so true. So much of reading and writing is subjective and once you move from the obvious ones, you enter a grey area defined by preference. My guess is most writers/publishers end up using the golden rule when they have a sincere difference of opinion. Whoever is deemed to have more gold, rules.

Allison said...

This series is ridiculously helpful! It is truly giving me a fresh pair of eyes as I read my own writing, and allowing me to hear the story through the mental voice of the reader (instead of my own, overly-forgiving perspective). Thank you so very much, Nathan. It's awesome.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I definitely agree that no one should overthink their writing such that they get paralyzed. At the same time, many of the points you bring up about LOOKING FOR ALASKA are outside the scope of a page critique, and the one you do point out ("I am concussed") is an example, I would argue, of really good writing. The point of that is that it doesn't sound like Pudge, so he's demonstrating how messed up he is by saying it. That's good writing.

I agree that you can tinker endlessly with anyone's writing, but I also think your comment has a false equivalency. Just because we can critique anyone's work doesn't mean we should stop trying to sort out which things work and which don't. There's a certain degree of subjectivity to this, but not endless subjectivity. A well-written sentence is a well-written sentence.

Anonymous said...

One of the things I've noticed in my critique group is the variance of opinions that can come. I listen for the like and differing opinions, especially giving weight to those from the members who I believe would actually be readers if my book were out. There are two or three members that might never be attracted to my writing if it was out. I listen to their comments a little differently as they–unconsciously or consciously-may need more so to refashion writing according to their own preferences.

A professional editor will not try to change a writer or write for them.

It takes practice and discipline, in a critique of a work outside your own preference, to listen to what interrupts the flow of the writer's story or voice or structure and not redirect.

Also, it is very hard to give story critique to 250 words, much like it would be to go on a trip with someone you have said hello to at the corner for the first time.

From these 250 words, overall I was drawn in, i.e. Now, I might consider going on a vacation with the writer. I at least am going out for a meal with them now.

Malia Sutton said...

Sea said,"One thing I'm wondering though is, have most published novels been gone through with such a fine-tooth comb?"

Sea...absolutely not. This is a blogging event/feature that deals with writing, and that's why it's being examined so closely. It's all about discussion and you can either agree or disagree and then do whatever you want to do :)

Anonymous said...

Another comment:

A suggestion that I have:
The first bit through "desire to save her" could be a short, exciting prologue.

And then, instead of the "It's a dream" stop, begin with chapter one in the story elsewhere.

This way, you get to keep the gripping opening without jarring the reader (or the just kidding shock).

A thought anyway.

Then you can come back and build in the necessary dream issues that Iven is having and later (it seems integral) weave back the wolf circling confrontation that seems likely to be central to the story as well as a gripping opening.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Not on subject, but very important to authors here...and everywhere!

See--> http://www.idealog.com/blog/

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Nathan.

"... many of the points you bring up about LOOKING FOR ALASKA are outside the scope of a page critique..."

No, they aren't, they just might not occur on the FIRST page, but depending on what page you are on, they are valid points. In the same vein that saying a "Just Kidding" opening is bad, LOOKING's info dump on the first page is just as unbecoming.

In the pages that follow, which would be addressed if we continued on with a "page" critique, we find the cliched poor mom living in a trailer and working as a waitress, the use of endless lists,the MC's entire journey being passive not active, the prank subplot that gets lost and then reappears out of nowhere when an emotional point needs to be made, etc.. So, if you open up to a different page, you'll still find all that.
(btw, I love LFA. I own two copies, like I said, it's a great book.)

"... Just because we can critique anyone's work doesn't mean we should stop trying to sort out which things work and which don't..."

I didn't imply we all shouldn't work our hardest and keep learning. Why would we flock to this beloved blog if we didn't care? I said if you do this to any book -- even your favorite book -- you'll come up with many of the same things.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

But again, I feel like the things you're pointing out are outside the scope of a page critique. I don't think you could really point to sentences on the first page of LFA that are written poorly. It may not be how you personally like novels to begin, but the writing is brilliant. Sentences like these "Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years." represent really, really good writing.

I don't even feel like the first page of LFA is an info dump. It opens with his mom planning a going-away party that he's not looking forward to - how is that an info dump?

But setting that aside, my basic feeling is that we personally might not like this or that opening, but what I'm looking for as an agent and as a critiquer is whether the page succeeds at what it's trying to do. I'm not thinking about whether it's something I personally would write or read. And note that I didn't rule out "just kidding" openings, just that I don't think this one works (yet) as it stands. But I think Heidi will find a way to make it work.

Yes, we can definitely critique anything. But there's not endless subjectivity. At some point good writing is just good writing.

treeoflife said...

This is a silly argument. Just because you can critique any piece of writing, doesn't mean all writing is equal and critiquing is pointless. Let's face it: Some stuff works better than others, and the whole point of the exercise is to see how to improve things.

You don't have to defend anything Nathan. I'm sure the vast majority of the readers here get it.

Anonymous said...

It's an info dump because it's backstory -- the real story doesn't start until three pages later when he first arrives at the boarding school. Since we never hear about his "old" friends again, it probably would've been best to weave in his thoughts about his going away party/old friends into the text while he was at the boarding school moving in his furniture with the Colonel or whatever.

Does it matter? Not to me, because I love the book. Not to you, because you love the book. To page critique of the fashion we are presently involved in? Yes, because the first scene has nothing to do with, nor does it hint at what is to come (the old friends and his home life don't matter where he is going).

If that section were a mere paragraph at the beginning, that would've been fine, too. It would've grounded us as a reader to the simple fact that this is his first year at boarding school. But because the section is three pages, yes, that seems like an info dump.

I'll stop posting before I piss you off. :)

Anonymous said...

Sorry -- I meant to delete my last post not post it.

It really doesn't matter what I think in this instance, and I feel I'm splitting hairs.

No more posts from me, I promise.

Dan said...

I haven't read "Looking For Alaska," but I wanted to comment on something Anon said:

"Miles himself is more of a witness to Alaska, than an active participant in the novel, he wants her, but takes no steps to make it happen and instead settles for Lara, the kind of inactivity that's a huge no-no for a main character"

This is absolutely incorrect. A main character can exhibit any sort of quality a real person might exhibit, as long as the book is about something happening. An indecisive, or passive main character is completely valid, as is a main character whose arc is to fail in a major objective. A character who reacts to events can be as effective as one who drives them, as long as the events flow organically from the story. His inability to assert himself can be a perfectly valid flaw that complicates his problems.

A story about a character who loses or misses out on romantic love and settles into a relationship he feels less passionate about may present marketing challenges. But it's functional as a narrative, and there's no reason it can't be compelling.

The concern about a main character who doesn't do much is you end up with a story where nothing happens; this is a common defect of the twenty-something slacker genre.

But there are plenty of great books that build excellent stories about passive characters. For example, the central arc of "Hamlet" is that the protagonist ought to do something, but doesn't want to do anything.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

You're not pissing me off. I just don't see it as an info dump because where he comes from is important to the story, and Green showed by constructing an actual scene. He didn't start off "There's a kid and he's not very popular and his parents wanted what's best for him so they sent him to private school." Instead he shows it in an actual scene.

I don't see why a story has to begin precisely where the main plot starts. Something should get going in the opening, but it doesn't have to be the main plot arc. The Hobbits didn't leave for Mordor on Page One. Ishmael didn't go looking for Moby Dick on Page One. etc. etc.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Thanks Victoria :-)

Mira said...

So, I only have a few things to add because the critiques have been very thorough.

In terms of the dream sequence, knowing it was fantasy, I was fine with it. A dream sequence in fantasy can mean psychic connection, alternate universe, prohetic dreams, alternate personas and lots of other wonderful things. A dream sequence in fantasy, makes me settle into my chair saying to myself: oh cool. what's this about?

On the other hand, I think Nathan is right on the ball with the idea that this needed something(a new idea for me, thanks Nathan) because the reader needed a bit more grounding. Just one or two quick sentences, bringing the reader back into the physical world - the clock ticked, the sheets on my bed were soaked. And maybe strenghten the sentence that the nightmares were reoccuring, so the reader knows it's a major plot point, and not just a trick. I think that would work, although I'm not positive.

The wolf scene was exciting to me, but I had trouble getting into the story, because my smooth flow of reading kept being interrupted with my own questions: what? what's happening? Is this a group? what heaps on the ground? Why was the wolf posed to attack and suddenly turn around, huh?

I felt relieved that Olivia was alive and well. So, you hooked me there. :)

Lots of promise in this story. I'd keep reading - and I'm your target audience, so there you go! But a few tweaks would make it stronger - so it would grab the reader and not let the reader go.

Good luck, Heidi! :)

flibgibbet said...

New to the blog, short-term lurker. Thanks Nathan for sharing your wisdom, and Heidi for sharing your work.

I get the sense that the dream sequence is actually a premonition of a real event to come. Good.

Therefore, I can see it working better as a prologue/frame to avoid calling it a dream. It would mean tweaking the para about Iven awakening with Olivia sitting across from him, but it might solve the "gotcha" problem.

I was confused by "Fire, wolves, Salt Lake City, airport". I assumed Iven awoke in a hospital bed,(vinyl chair reference) and that the Salt Lake City Airport, was another (mysterious) layer of his dream/premonition.

I would have understood better if that list was cut in two somehow. Two are dream references, two are about real-time orientation.

Agree with Ink that the action is out of order. Wolf and man circling each other WHILE a forest fire blazes all around could be clearer earlier. Like Nathan, I first thought "flames reflected" meant a campfire.

"As one by one the pack was claimed" sounds off to me. I think you mean individual wolves were being consumed by fire. As in, one by one (each member) of the pack was claimed.

Also wondered how the wolf and Iven can avoid being burned to a crisp since the rest of the pack was incinerated in this inferno.

Once again, kudos to both Nathan and Heidi. Enjoyed both reads.

Heidi J. Johns said...

Okay, I just printed off and read everything posted so far, and even though I probably should keep quiet…well, I’m not going to. ☺

Although I agree with a lot that has been said (both the good and the bad), I feel I owe it to myself and my writing to weigh in again.

Please bear with me, because since there is a character limit, this will take more than one comment boxes.

1.Dream sequence

I’m looking at it, but I haven’t made up my mind whether or not to keep it.

I thought about uploading just the dream as my first page (I intentionally pared it down to be able to introduce the airport bit.). However, I think the discussion has been a lot more lively since I uploaded both, so I’m glad I used both.

It does beg the question of the trust fall. I’m not saying that I definitely caught the reader, but with the word limit, I don't think that question can be totally answered until reading further.

Incidentally, in the MS the dream is in italics, which may or may not clue in the reader.

2.Mouthfuls

The white teeth reflection debate, my fingers gripped, the wolf spinning, the others ensnared…I will look at all and tweak and edit and revise.

Personally I thought it was cool that the flames reflected off the uber white teeth. ☺

Heidi J. Johns said...

3. Nathan’s critique

Of course I am looking very carefully at what you said. So, please, please, please do not be insulted when I say while I agree with most, I don’t completely agree with all. I’ve put my thoughts on the critique are in parentheses.

Title: PEARL EDDA
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The wolf circled me.

Slowly. Is this necessary? Usually a word gets its own paragraph when it’s surprising, but is it really surprising for a wolf to circle someone slowly? Do they ever circle someone quickly?

(Since this is YA fiction, what may be obvious to an adult reader, may not be obvious to a twelve year old. So, maybe it is necessary? Or at the least, not a throwaway.)

Its eyes narrowed; its ears flat against its skull. Not sure about the sentence fragment or the semi-colon. Wonder if the rhythm would be better if this were two short declarative sentences (like the body on point/hackles paragraph).

(Totally agree here. It is a typo. I missed it.)

It snarled, baring teeth so white the flames reflected off them. My fingers gripped the knife I held pressed against my thigh as I turned with the beast. Each of us biding our time. Tense change.

(I don’t necessarily agree with wrong tense, but I do agree with wrong person number. I will change this. Especially since by putting “his” instead of “our” gives the reader gender clues.)

Engaged in our silent dance amidst the chaos. The chaos hasn't yet been described, so I don't know that it needs to be referenced if you're not going to specify. Otherwise, since this scene has so far been focused on the faceoff (I originally thought the flames reflected were from a campfire or something), the reader is just going to think, "Wait, what chaos?"

(Hmmm…I’m thinking on this one. I think the reader SHOULD be saying, “Wait. What chaos?” The next sentences resolve that question.)

Around us, the forest popped and groaned. Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc "awaited their turn" makes it seem like the embers are intelligent/living beings; howls sliced through the inferno’s roar as one by one the pack was claimed. Not sure what's happening here.

(I can see your point on the embers. However, I’m not sure it’s another throwaway. I could add the pack at the beginning so it’s clear there is more than one wolf. Actually there are hundreds of wolves, and they are NOT werewolves, but they aren’t wolf wolves either…but that’s way down the plot line. ☺)

The animal paused. Its body on point. Its black hackles ruffled. Love this.

(Thanks.)

Then it bolted, spinning away from me and from the others who were now each ensnared in death’s fiery grip.

Shoving the knife into its sheath, I chased after the beast, but it taunted me with its speed and agility Is the wolf showing off? Not sure that "taunting" is the right word choice here.

(Yes, when it gets to this point in real life, the wolf is totally showing off, and not in a pleasant way.)

Heidi J. Johns said...

I burst forward, averting my eyes from the smoldering heaps littering the ground.

I couldn’t look.

I had but one goal – to find her. Somehow I knew the wolf shared that goal "Shared that goal" feels a little awkward, esp. since "goal" is repeated again

(Yes, I do know the “rule” about using a word twice. Needs revising.)

, but, unlike me, it had no desire to save her. "had no desire to" seems a tad overwrought. It's also already clear that they're not on the same side, so is this necessary to point out?

(I can rework this too. Maybe introduce earlier that he needs to save her. On another note, Bryan Russell’s comment about big picture is something I will look at as well.)


“Iven?”

Startled, I opened my eyes, wondering where I was and why my heart was racing Would the character really be wondering why their heart is racing? They just had a scary dream.

(Point taken. I also liked what Anon said about this part being out of order.)

The dreams were more getting vivid and it took me a moment to get my bearings as several images ran through my muddled brain.

Fire…wolves…Salt Lake City…airport… Since we now know this was a dream, it's important to help the reader feel like they know what they should be taking away from it and to leave them on sure footing. "Salt Lake City" and "airport" introduces a further mystery that the protagonist knows something about and the reader doesn't, and they may feel like you're holding out on them.

(Except it goes from the elements of the dream to the elements of where he is currently. Totally agree with the sure footing, not sure that I’m not bringing the reader to sure footing.)

Olivia.

Relief coursed through me. Feels overwritten. Does relief really "course through"? But also it's telling: could we see what this character does/how they react when they feel relieved?

(I can agree here. I do have a question though. Obviously showing is better than telling, but does telling never have a place? Here maybe not, but elsewhere?)

She sat in a vinyl chair across from me I like the detail of "vinyl chair". Simple, but helps give a mental image.

(Thanks.)

Staring at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Heidi J. Johns said...

5. Final(ish) thoughts

I don’t have any visions of winning a Pulitzer with Pearl Edda. I completely understand that it’s a piece of commercial fiction.

That being said, do I still want it to be the best piece of commercial fiction that I can produce? Absolutely. Will I edit and revise relentlessly until it shines? Of course. Am I grateful for this opportunity to put my writing on the line? You bet! I’ve quite enjoyed the discussion. Although it would have been great to have uploaded a perfect piece, the teacher in me is kind of glad I didn’t.

So again, thanks, everyone, for weighing in, for picking apart, for helping me see another side or two!

Cheryl said...

The power went out in our neighborhood yesterday so I wasn't able to participate. :(

I did want to get my .02¢ in, though!

On the matter of cliches: People tend to forget that there's a difference between cliche and typical life. A poor family living in a beat up trailer with a diner working mom is not cliche, it's a pretty common fact of life. It may not be *your* reality but it is reality for many - enough for it to *not* be a cliche.

This idea also applies to colloquialisms. Colloquialisms are just that, colloquials. Cliche is cliche. Big difference in definitions. To say, "as useless as tits on a boar hog" is character development, it shows regional aspects, life in the country, etc. Sure, it's used *a lot* in the south and that's all the more reason why it's a colloquialism and not a cliche. People tend to confuse these, too, calling them cliches.

In my opinion, which I'll admit is isn't worth much to most, you have to look at the whole picture before throwing out the word cliche, a word that is overused more often than not, making it a cliche.

Linnea said...

Oh darn, Heidi. A dream sequence:) Have to admit to disappointment as I was just getting interested in the wolf scene. I had an actual wolf encouter myself so wanted to see how you handled it. Didn't like having to change gears from dream to reality - so mundane by comparison. I did, however, enjoy many of the same descriptive phrases as other posters.

Nathan said...

The really marvelous thing about this exercise is the scope of perspectives coming into play on the writing sample.

This sample, and its critiques (however many there are) can and should be used as a measuring stick for the writer's work in general, which is especially invaluable considering the amount of dedicated attention the sample is given by a literary agent (how often will there ever be such detailed feedback on submitted works by a literary agent?), and many other writers both published and otherwise.

You can never have too many critiques, since each is offering their own experience and suggestions. The more you recieve, the greater the amplitude of perspective with which you can evaluate your work, applying those suggestions you feel will best serve your work and individual style.

zarkia said...

I love this feature, Nathan. It's such a good idea. Thank you so much for taking the time to show us what you think works and doesn't work in writing.

Jaimie said...

Nathan, that back-and-forth you had with Anon about the opening not being (or being) an info dump...

SO interesting.

I have the same kind of conundrum in my story opening. The first scene isn't the main plot... it's backstory, and it's not short-sentence staccato either. According to most people, that style of opening would be "wrong."

I would enjoy a post on this, by the way. :)

k10wnsta said...

As always, I'm a week behind in catching up with Nathan's posts and despite the fact that everyone has moved on, I was compelled to comment about this.

I was really impressed by the opening passage (the dream sequence). The writing - particularly the unique detail in laying out the scene - really grabbed me. I was actually a bit dismayed at being ripped from the setting I'd just invested myself in (and in ~100 words, no less), but it was enough to have kept me going for a couple more pages to see if the author could treat the real world in such well-crafted form.

As for Nathan's redline, I found all but one aspect of it insightful:

Flames licked their way up pine trees; concealed embers awaited their turn to wreak havoc;... "awaited their turn" makes it seem like the embers are intelligent/living beings;

Heidi, if I could make one humble request as an anonymous commenter, it would be that you not touch this line. I considered it a masterstroke of detail and it sold me on trusting you as a writer. It demonstrated, at the very least, that you have a basic understanding of the craft. In fact, I actually stopped and reread it thinking 'wow! what a spectacular line!'

Personification can be one of the most useful literary devices...and one of the most difficult to pull off effectively. You hit a homerun with this one.
Nathan's red ink is a valid concern if that's the only use of more advanced literary technique in the story (it is YA, after all), but in this case, I hope you let it slide.

Anonymous said...

If you are reading this, the executor of my estate sold my diary to a publisher, which means it’s a sure-fire best seller because he doesn’t do anything for free, a blockbuster of a story about the time I spent on this side with the international bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, as well as other ghosties stuck between worlds. It also means I’m tiptoeing through the heavenly tulips, smelling the eternally fragrant roses, dallying in luminescent daisies that never wilt, and any number of other descriptive ways to say a person was pushing up the aforementioned and eternal daisies basking in perpetual sunshine. But more importantly, you aren’t dead and still have a chance to pick up where I left off and walk a mile in my size nines.

YA Comedy: 81K
THE INCREDIBLE, TRUE-LIFE ADVENTURES OF THE LATE
ABLE BAKER CHARLIE:
GHOST WHISPERING SHRINK
PM Flynn

Magdalena Munro said...

Keeping Julia Alive
Women's Fiction

St. Christopher’s grave welcomed the rare June rainfall that fell from the hazy skies above Burbank. His companions, all named after saints, rested in what the locals called the nicest pet cemetery on earth. Stones of all shapes and sizes were perched atop each of the small plots, their gray tones muted by the wild flowers growing with frenzy in the climate perfectly suited for flowering buds. The bountiful orange trees that canopied the plot coupled with the overpowering fragrance of jasmine and roses often had Laura wishing that she could be buried in her backyard when it was her time to go.
“I mean, seriously, Jake, wouldn’t that be just so divine?” proclaimed the natural beauty to one of her cats as she playfully chased him around the house with a peacock feather. The sound of her bare feet against the hardwoods thumped as she played with him until they both fell to the floor. For a brief moment her saucer shaped eyes became transfixed at the rainfall pouring from the sky. She was happy when her beloved town received a cleansing in the form of rain and for a moment she recalled how much fun she and Julia had during the El Niño winters as they would bombard puddles with their playful stomps.

Heidi J. Johns said...

Thanks, k10wstna!

Maya said...

Hi Heidi,

It was Interesting reading your thoughts. I do like the one line with personification of the embers. I think you should keep it too.

Just to let you know, it was not obvious to me that "Salt Lake City...airport" meant where she was in the real world. I thought it referred to another part of the dream that we didn't know about. So I think you should clarify that. Although I don't think it should be a dream at all (see my above comment about using a different framing device).

Anyway, best of luck!

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