Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, June 14, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks so much to Chuck H for offering his page for critique!

As many have noted in the comments section, this page has an engaging start, and there's strong writing here. It manages to be both languid (two guys sitting on the porch) and tense (discussing tough questions), there's an interesting dynamic between the characters, and it opens some questions that we want to know more about. Nice work, Chuck!

Other than some smoothing out (more about that in the redline), I have just one main point of concern, which has to do with the opening.

There was something that wasn't quite working for me with the opening line, and I just couldn't figure out what it was. There's nothing technically wrong with it, it's catchy, it's intriguing on its own.... but there was something that felt just a bit off. And I couldn't put my finger on it.

Then I realized: it's not the first line that's the problem! Instead, it's actually the second line that threw me.

As I've discussed in past page critiques, starting off in provocative fashion (e.g. with catchy dialogue or rug-pulling/just kidding moment or something otherwise provocative etc.) is one of those trust-fall moments between a writer and reader. The hand of the author shines through in these types of openings. Yes, a provocative opening can help pull in the reader by making them want to find out what the writer is going to do, but the flashiness and artifice can make it difficult for the reader to immediately forget the presence of the author and immerse themselves in the book. So it's very necessary to quickly catch the reader so they feel as if they're in sure hands.

And unfortunately, in this case the second sentence drops the reader in the proverbial trust fall. It feels a bit stilted ("as I contemplated my companion who was staring out"), a bit redundant (the narrator both "thought about" and"contemplated"), and contradictory (the "as" in the sentence makes it seem like he's thinking about both the question and the questioner simultaneously, which isn't really how thinking works). It didn't make me believe in the character's voice, and I just don't know that it delivers on the promise of the first line. As a reader it put me on edge.

The consequence: because I didn't believe the second line, all of a sudden it didn't seem plausible to me that this character would fixate on his companion's appearance when faced with that question, even though the detail in the third sentence is good and even though there's nothing wrong with a pause or a character observing another character in this situation. It's just that the second sentence made me disbelieve this character's reaction.

After that moment the page flows fine and it recovers. But when you're starting in catchy fashion, it's so important to make sure that what follows the catchy part is just as strong, if not stronger than the opening. Otherwise the reader is going to feel dropped and it undermines the trust that is so important to establish in the beginning of a novel.

All the same, I think this page is in very good shape and think it just needs a few tweaks.

THE REDLINE

TITLE: Old Farts
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Chapter One

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

I thought about that one for a while as I contemplated my companion who was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots. I thought to myself that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American. Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long Not necessary. Show it through the other character interrupting.

“Well, have you?” This bit of dialogue didn't feel natural to me. Do people really say, "Well, have you?" when they're impatient? Wouldn't most people just say, "Well?" or "I'm waiting" or "Hey," or something else? Also, I wasn't sure whether it was Joe or the narrator who was saying this. A dialogue tag would clarify things greatly.

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone I like this paragraph up to this point? I lied I found this confusing since he hasn't said it yet. Maybe he just decides to lie here and then says "No"?.

“No.”

Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then directed his attention back to the million dollar view from my front porch.

“Me neither.”

We sat for a while in silence. I was trying to decide whether or not I should call him a liar. God only knows what he was thinking. I finally made up my mind to confront him Wonder if there's a way to show that he's made up his mind rather than just saying he's made up his mind. Thought process could feel a little more natural.

“I always thought that you were . . .”

“I lied.” Wasn't totally 100% on who said which line of dialogue here.






43 comments:

Stephen Prosapio said...

Yep. Yep. That second sentence sits there like a potsticker in a marathon runner's belly. Clean that up a bit and I think you have something. Maybe even go directly to the description of him which is strong rather than saying "I contemplated him."

Also, Nathan read the "Well have you?" line differently. Is that the original or is that a response? Originally I read it as the response.
"Have you ever killed anyone?"
"Well, have you?"

I likely was incorrect to read it that way but the last thing you want a reader to do at that point is go back and reread. If this was a book, I'd keep reading to see what happens next.
:-)

Josin L. McQuein said...

The "who's the speaker" issue happened more than once when I read this the first time. Maybe one dialogue tag to sort out who's speaking would clarify the rest of the snip.

Either:

"Well, have you?" he asked (I asked).

or (and especially) the "I lied," he said (I said) at the end.

Is the narrator confessing to the friend or is the friend fessing up to the narrator?

Cheryl said...

I didn't get a chance to crit before Nathan put his up. He pretty much covered everything I had to say. Cleaned up and less confusing and I think you have something great. Good luck!

heather said...

I enjoyed this little snippet and would keep reading. And after id'ing the speakers and their lines, I'd say it's very well done. I love that you're characters aren't young adult! It seems everyone is writing YA lately. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in my best Seinfeld voice).

Good work!

Mike said...

Funny, I thought I knew who said which of the last two lines until reading the critique.

I was okay with the "Well, have you?" as long as the speaker is supposed to come across a little on edge and frazzled with the listener.

My biggest concern with is with the title. Old Farts makes it sound a little comedic or at least not very serious but the writing in the first page seems very serious and dramatic.

Mira said...

Stephen - quite a vivid metaphor there - potsticker in a runner's belly. Lol.

Chuck H. - you have VOICE. That alone - there's nothing more important to a writer. And I love the title, and that you're writing about two older men. This is intruiging, and I think you captured your characters well - at least on this page.

Nathan - darn you. You are so good at this. Just to test myself, I thought about what feedback I'd give to compare it to yours and then waited to see what you'd say. Yours is better. Much better. Much, much better, and so on target.

Darn you, Mr. Bransford. You're very talented.

The only critique I have to add is a weird one, and may be unique to me. I found the first line funny - I laughed. I sobered up quickly when I realized you were serious. It might have been the title - I was expecting humor.

Don't know if that's remotely helpful.

Once polished, and depending on the rest of the book, of course, I could see this as possibly finding a particular niche in the mystery market. Sort of a cozy, but more hardcore, maybe?, but still might appeal to that readership...? Best wishes, Chuck!

Mira said...

Oh - I'll quickly add - joking aside, Nathan, thank you. I'm learning so much from these.

Tracey said...

On more than one occasion, I had a hard time identifying who was speaking. That made reading the passage a bit confusing.

I didn't have any trouble with the "Well, have you?" line, though, because I've heard people say that quite often when they're impatient and starting to get irritated or even angry.

I really don't like the title. "Old Farts" is a definite turnoff. It sounds like it's going to involve scatological comedy, and that's definitely not my thing. Based on the title, I wouldn't even check out the blurb on the back of the book.

ryan field said...

I'm glad a dialogue tag was suggested. People seem so afraid to use them lately.

Mike said...

What's the latest standard on dialogue tags. A lot of people say not to use them and here an agent is recommending one.

I'm guessing restraint is the rule-of-thumb here?

D. G. Hudson said...

Congrats, Chuck on being selected for critique. We all learn a lot from the critique & redlining Nathan does. Good luck with your writing.

Now I'm interested in what these old guys have been hiding, since they both admit to being liars.

Amy DeZellar said...

In this section:

“Well, have you?” This bit of dialogue didn't feel natural to me. Do people really say, "Well, have you?" when they're impatient? Wouldn't most people just say, "Well?" or "I'm waiting" or "Hey," or something else? Also, I wasn't sure whether it was Joe or the narrator who was saying this. A dialogue tag would clarify things greatly.

What I would do, unless you're hellbent on not saying the narrator's name, is just say his name here. "Jeremiah?" or whatever.

Loved it, though!

Dan said...

I really hate to be kind of harsh, but there are several beginner mistakes in this piece.

First of all, the prose is a little bit stilted in places. Several examples: "contemplated my companion," "speckled here and there with dark spots," "peripherally at least"

The bulk of the page is expository; a long paragraph about what Joe looks like and a long paragraph about the narrator's military background.

The description is very flat to me. A good description illuminates the character of both the speaker and the person being described. You're looking for details that indicate character, and you're looking to reveal the narrator in what he observes and notices. Hair and eyes are obvious, and hair, in particular, is rarely helpful to know about.

There are also "telling, not showing" problems, particularly the "million dollar view." They could be looking at the Texas prairie or the Alaskan tundra from what we know here.

There are other inefficiencies; you can collapse the narrator's age and the military history into a single detail by saying what "war zone" he served in.

The dialog is monosyllabic, and doesn't really do much to show the characters. There's no sense of the relationship between these men. There's no context. Joe could be a retarded farmhand asking random questions to his indulgent boss, or Joe could be a local crime boss propositioning the narrator to kill for him.

All this stuff combines to form an uneven, problematic voice.

It may seem like all the issues I am pointing out here are going to be hard to incorporate into a single page of text, but consider this treatment of the same exchange:


"Have you ever killed anyone?"

Joe was rocking back and forth in his chair with such furious intensity that the old planks of my porch creaked under the weight of him.

"The hell kind of question is that?" I said.

"I dunno." Joe's shrug was really more of a twitch. "So? Have you?"

I groaned.

Joe had a face the same color and texture as an old saddle bag. Maybe he had some Indian blood in him, or maybe he just spent too much time staring up at the sun.

"I might be persuaded to take you 'round behind the barn and put two in the back of your head, for asking stupid questions," I told him. "But first I'm going to finish my beer, before it gets warm."


Here, there's a relationship between the characters. There's a suggestion of a setting in the narrator's references to saddle bags and barns. There's a context.

This stuff is more important to have on the first page than Joe's height or hair color, or the narrator's military history. You have to get the characters in before the reader is going to be willing to invest in learning those details about them

treeoflife said...

A pretty fun read.

I have to second a few of the comments above, in that I'd like some dialogue tag.

It made the opening sentence quite odd... I almost felt like it was directed to the reader, kinda like how you start a story with a question. And of course, being asked if you killed someone would throw most of us off balance :P

But I do second what a lot of people here said about voice as well. Good voice. And voice is one of the hardest things to master.

jml2 said...

Dan - great advice!

Melissa Gill said...

You have an interesting concept here. Have you thought about possibly punching up the tension in the dialoge by moving some of the exposition. The dialogue is quite punchy but the interior monologue slows it down a bit. I'd be even more intrigued if the backstory and physical descriptions came in later.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

Even though you did provide some suggestions, I did not see any positive feedback (no sandwich rule).

hmmm....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said -

What is it with you and policing the comments? A couple of attempts to give constructive and detailed criticism and you're on about sandwiches. If they were being rude or hateful, there'd be no help offered. Quite picking at the ones who took the time to give detailed feedback. If the blog owner thought the comments were out of line he would take them off the commet stream.

James said...

re: The second line problem.

I think it sounds odd because Joe is the subject of the second paragraph, but it begins talking about the narrator. The reader commits to thinking about the narrator, and then is hit with description of Joe. The commentary about the narrator would hang better off of Joe as the subject. Something like:

--------
“Have you ever killed anyone?”

Joe, about my age — somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty — but compact and wiry, staring from under a full head of speckled gray, his eyes carved starkly out of a dark complexion, and somehow peering past that nose, I thought, must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American. Or maybe it was...

"Well?"
---------

Apologies for the cumbersome rewrite, but the idea is that Joe is speaking before the paragraph, and he is also the subject of the paragraph, so I've started by focusing the reader on Joe, then easing into the narrator's thoughts. That the next line is meant to depict Joe interrupting the narrator's thoughts is emphasized by the fact that the preceding paragraph - after proceeding cautiously into the narrator's head - suddenly jumps back into Joe's dialog (bumbling ellipses is a poor touch on my part - sorry).

I always ask myself: what's the subject of this paragraph?

Easier Read than Done said...

Mira,

I read several writing blogs and I have seen many of your comments. I notice you always post wonderfully positive and upbeat comments.

I always enjoy seeing them as I navigate the internets.

Thanks for putting out some of your good karma into the blogosphere.

Mira said...

Easier Read - how incredibly nice of you to take the time to say that!! Wow. I feel very complimented. Thank you!

I'll look forward to seeing comments from you as well. :)

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great premise. I would advise trying to pare down some of the details.

I sometimes use painting by numbers as an analogy to writing. I think an author should leave at least 20% of the bubbles empty and let the readers choose what colors to use in order to make it a collaborative process.

I would recommend a less crass title. Old Farts is very attentiong getting, but not sure it is mainstream enough. Of course, my son loves Capt Underpants books so I may be dead wrong.

I am going to use CAPS for my feedback, apologies in advance for being obnoxious but I think it makes sense.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” GREAT OPENING LINE

I thought about that one for a while as I contemplated (THOUGHT ABOUT FOR A WHILE AND CONTEMPLATED IS REDUNDANT) my companion (DID NOT LIKE THE WORD CHOICE, COULD USE JOE INSTEAD) who was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots (TOO MUCH DETAIL IMO--lET'S GET TO THE ANSWER TO THE GREAT QUESTION). I thought to myself (REDUNDANT TO SAY TO MYSELF) that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. (COULD JUST SAY SOMETHING TO THE EFFECT OF "HE HAD TO BE PART INDIAN" READERS WOULD GET AN IMMEDIATE IMAGE OF JOE) Excuse me, Native American. (GOOD LINE. GIVES AN INSIGHT INTO THE SPEAKER'S ATTITUDES/HUMOR) Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long (THIS SENTENCE HAS A DIFFERENT TONE THAN EXCUSE ME, NATIVE AMERICAN. TO BE CONSISTENT I MIGHT SAY. EVIDENTLY, I WAS THINKING TOO SLOW)

All in all, you're getting me to keep reading to find out about their backgrounds, who they killed, how they know each other, and why they are lying

nice work.

Easier Read than Done said...

the comment right above as anonymous I meant to put Easier Read than Done but I hit the wrong button too soon

Jil said...

Chuck H. I really liked your offering and could see the two old farts (A term which sounds normal to me in this respect) sitting on that front porch, ruminating about life. Each other's especially. Walter Mathau could be one of them. For me, the rewrites several people wrote lost your mood and made the whole thing ordinary.
I'm not going to be picky because it worked for me.
Good luck and thanks.

Claudie said...

I think overall this is a good first page, and I know I wanted to read more by the time I got to the end.

My main concern, however, is that I don't feel as though I have a sense of the characters. They're discussing serious questions here, and I'd expect that to bring out their respective personalities more.

As of now, I am left with the impression both are rather uncaring and distant. Also left with the impression that -wasn't- the impression you wanted to give. ;)

There is one sentence that gives us a sense of personality, and it's by far my favourite (in fact, I think it's awesome). That was "Excuse me, Native Americans." LOVED it!

Nancy said...

Thank you for sharing your page with us, Chuck H. I agree with the commenters above--your writing has voice. I easily picked up on the tone of the story in this page.

I agree with Nathan's comment on the second line though. I wonder if rearranging the paragraphs might fix the problem.

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone?

"Well, have you?"


The second question now seems to flow out of his own internal ramblings. We also learn about the narrator first, rather than what the second man looks like. That paragraph could easily be moved farther down the page when the narrator is wondering about his friend's checkered past.

You have all the pieces of an excellent story here Chuck. Your last line--which I assumed was spoken by the friend--would make me turn the page.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the third paragraph.

ibisbill said...

Question for Nathan. How do you feel about adding three mini-lines (usually in a smaller font and along the left margin) at the beginning of each chapter, giving the Date, Time and Place.

You see this technique used in thrillers. I think it is an unobtrusive and efficient way of getting those three key facts across to the reader. What do you think?

Mira said...

Easier Read - cool. :)

JoAnn said...

Page Critique Monday is, hands down, the most useful writer's blog info out there. Thanks, Nathan. It really helps to see a redline and understand the thinking that went into it. Don't stop, don't stop! And may I suggest that when you go on vacation (you do that, right?) you implore your guest bloggers to do PCM. It would be great to see what others think.

The Zuccini said...

“Have you ever killed anyone?”Joe said.

He was about my age—somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of gray hair speckled here and there with dark spots. I thought to myself that, with his dark complexion and that nose, he must have had some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American.

His question was simple but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone.I never carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air (are the people in the air?). Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone?

“No," I said and looked away.

Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then redirected his attention back to Farthings Valley, below the our inflatable mansion. (Even though there is good description I think you missed an opportunity to tell us where they are unobtrusively.) The Danube River cut the valley in two and there was a six point buck near that water's edge that made my fingers itch for my light saber.

“Me neither, ”Joe said.

We sat for a while in silence. I couldn't decide whether or not I should call him a liar. (Earlier you called him your companion which indicates they are not friends but here the MC seems to know Joe has killed somebody which indicates intimate knowledge.)

I always thought that you were a Jedi?”(From the dialogue and the description this doesn't make sense to me so I fixed it=)

“I lied.”( I was impressed by the voice here. I really liked the sentence "I thought...." but when I looked at this as a whole, sacrificing it seemed to make things work better- from my perspective. I also added an inflatable mansion and a Jedi so my perspective is .... even words fail me. Anyway thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading your work. =)

Levonne said...

Nathan,
Thank you for your obvious serious concentration on the writing piece and your comments. Very enlightening. There is so much to learn as a writer!

Anonymous said...

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb hell out of folks on the ground and shoot down folks in the air. Then there was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone?

"Well, have you?"


I LOVE this suggestion. I think it flows much better. First, the description of the speaker stops your action, IMO, and dilutes the suspense. Second, I doubt your character would be thinking about the physical appearance of his friend. I think there's a tendency for writers (me included!) to feel like we need to describe everything to properly set a scene. But you can weave in tidbits as you go along, even through beats of action (which tends to be more interesting than description dumps.)

D. G. Hudson said...

Note: posted this on the other first thread in error:

If I imagine someone like Hunter S. Thompson sitting on his porch talking to one of his cronies, this scene takes on another dimension. And if you give one of the men a gun for them to be cleaning, the tension ramps up.

But is that what the author wants? Only Chuck knows what direction the story is going.

There's lot of suggestions in the commments, so consider them all, Chuck, but remain true to what you want to say. After all, it's your story.

Had to add this after reading all the comments.

Eric said...

D.G. Hudson,

That's a nice suggestion you've made with just one cleaning a gun. Preferably the one doing the quizzing.

Steppe said...

I liked it in it's totality. A couple of serious players sizing each other up for a possible partnership where they might have to kill their own partner if it got to think. The company reference was subtle but telling of hidden depth of experience with the war experience bit foreshadowing survival instincts trumping
reckless heroism. The piece comes off successfully as two old dogs trying to figuring out if they still have a fight left in them.
--------

TITLE: Old Farts
GENRE: Mystery/Suspense

Chapter One

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

I thought about that one for a while. my companion was staring out across the valley. Joe was about my age; somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty—compact, wiry with a full head of medium gray hair with dark spots speckled here and there. It occured to me that his dark complexion and flat wide nose, he must have some Indian ancestry. Excuse me, Native American.
(I left that bit because of the narrator stumbling over a point of current political correctness seems apropos of the old dogs sizing each other up; with a potential native tracker involved for wilderness scenes) My reluctance to directly answer Joe's question brought a second attempt.

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

It was a simple question but not so easy to answer. I had been involved, peripherally at least, in a war. I had worn the uniform and, technically, I had been in a war zone. However, I hadn’t carried a weapon or shot at people. But I had made it possible for others to bomb (the) hell out of folks on the ground (while) shooting down folks in the air. There was that gig as a company man after the war. Had I ever killed anyone?

“No.” I finally replied. The lie a correctly formed discretion.

Joe turned to stare at me for a moment then directed his attention back to the million dollar view from my front porch.

“Me neither.” Joe stated factually.

We sat for a while in silence. I was trying to decide whether or not I should call his bluff. God only knows what he was thinking. I decided it was time to confront Joe.

“I always thought you were . . .”

“I lied.” Joe said echoing the words I had used to remain non-committal
on the same ultimate question.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that old man #1 is going to ask old man #2 to kill him as a favor?

Jil said...

In that second sentence is he not thinking about the question while "contemplating" =( looking at) his companion? Sets an easy going, porch sitting mood for me;
I know I'm late...

Maya said...

Nathan, just wanted to say thanks. After a few weeks of reading your page critiques, I think I've really learned a lot about how you read the pages. I've learned that we must be meticulous in our phrases and be utterly clear in our meaning. That may seem obvious, but it has really sunk in for me.

I look forward to learning something equally fascinating about queries.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, your in depth critique became laughable with your own correction, a stand alone that reads "I groaned" Really? That's what you've got? Wow.

Chin up, dear original author. Not all critics offer constructive feedback, no matter how hard they try to provide it.

Chuck H. said...

Once again, I apologize for being absent from all these comments. My one chance to participate in a critique of my work and I was out road tripping.

I deeply appreciated all comments and will be considering them for some time. I may or may not agree with what you said but thank you ALL for saying something. Now I have to think.


One thing. About the title. Two minutes before I posted this, it had no title. This was the best I could come up with on short notice. Sorry.

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is interesting, because I must be the only person who had no problem identifying the speaker throughout this. The line, "Evidently my contemplation had gone on too long" shows us that his thoughts are about to be interrupted by Joe, who speaks next. And later, "I finally made up my mind to confront him," tells us that the narrator is about to call Joe out, so it is the narrator who speaks next.

Unless I'm wrong, Chuck...?

I disagree with the people who said that this doesn't give us a sense of the narrator's character, and that you need more dialogue tags. Since this is written in first person, the lack of dialogue tags tells us a lot about how the narrator thinks, in my opinion.

Chuck H. said...

@Ishta

No, you're not wrong. Thanks for the comment.

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