Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Page Critique Tuesday: My Critique

Thanks again to Erica for being one of the brave souls to offer up their work for public critique!

There is an immediately apparent personality on display here, and I think we get a good sense of the conflict. There is an engaging hook (kid having to move away, doesn't want to), and let's face it, the prospect of moving to a town named after an Italian scooter couldn't be appealing to any teenager.

I broke my thoughts down into two main sections:

Balancing showing and telling

I'm afraid I didn't feel that the balance between showing and telling is quite working itself out in this page. On the one hand the author demonstrates mood through gesture, which is an example of showing, but I wasn't quite sure that enough was gained from the gestures. On the other hand, there are other moments that are a bit too tell-y.

Let's start with the showing. My reservation with the gestures is that they are a bit too what-you'd-expect-from-a-teenager-who-doesn't-want-to-move. Glares, footstomps, anger at parent... pretty much exactly what you'd anticipate. While I think we do get a basic sense of the narrator's personality, I'm concerned she doesn't quite feel unique enough, and that there could be more gained from some unique reactions and perspectives.

And also cutting against the narration, there are moments when we're told precisely what the protagonist is thinking ("The reference to home bothered me more than I wanted my mom to know.", "The two months after my mom announced we were moving made me feel like I was losing my mind"), and I wanted to see those effects in action and for those feelings to be shown.

I've tackled showing vs. telling before, and my basic rule of thumb is that you shouldn't "tell" universal emotions - instead it's better to show how a character is reacting to those emotions. Better still if that character is reacting to those emotions in a unique fashion. We all experience the same basic emotions - how we react to those emotions is what makes us unique.

Stilted Dialogue

Dialogue does not have to sound precisely like real life, but it has to give enough of an impression of real life dialogue that we believe it. I'm afraid I just didn't believe all of the dialogue here. The mom's first line especially ("Child-like antics really don't suit you, Kenz") feels stilted. Would someone say "Child-like antics?" or would they say something like, "You're acting like a child?" Then again, I love the line, "You have two nights left to mope around.", which reveals more than anything else in that paragraph.

The stilted dialogue is symptomatic of a bit of overwriting in general - the paragraphs feel like they could use some streamlining, which I'll try and pinpoint in the redline.

Still, I feel like there is some promising writing here. Like many of you I really liked the last line, and I'd be curious to see where this goes.

REDLINE

Title: A New Day
Genre: YA comtemporary romance

I slammed the car door and shouldered my way past the men scattered around the front yard Can you shoulder your way through people who are scattered? Don't you normally shoulder your way through a crowd?. I spotted my mother and just about growled at her Do people consciously just about growl? while waving my hands at the moving van. "This is ridiculous. Get my stuff out of there!" I tried not to stomp my foot, but apparently my desperation caused my body parts to take control over my brain this feels overwritten, and a bit too self-aware. She tries not to stomp her foot, does, and then reasons that her desperation is causing her body parts to take control of her brain? Couldn't she just stomp? .

"Child-like antics really don't suit you, Kenz, not sure I believe this" my mother replied with a voice that left no doubt that she was sick of me we know how it sounds from the dialogue. "You have two nights left to mope around I like this, and it conveys everything in the last dialogue/tag far more effectively. They're only here for the big furniture this time."

"Fine, I'll sit on lawn chairs and sleep on the floor then feels stilted. You need to give up this moving idea and stay here with me, because I'm not going anywhere."

"This life isn't for us anymore. We're going home." One finger went up as she saw my mouth open for another protest. "Spend tonight with your friends. Tomorrow's going to be busy and we leave first thing Sunday morning."

I did my best to throw threw the moving van workers an intimidating glare as I walked past again, but it just made them grin wider. The reference to home bothered me more than I wanted my mom to know show this.

The two months after my mom announced we were moving made me feel like I was losing my mind the two months make her feel like she was losing her mind? Or the announcement? Precision! . Vespa, Wisconsin was the last place on earth I wanted to live. It was her home, not mine really like this.






59 comments:

Erica75 said...

Thank you again! As one commenter said early, one out of 219 is not good odds and I'm so glad to have this opportunity. Off to get some work done! And, I can't leave without saying, I hope you all get to see where this is going some day!

Anonymous said...

Hi. Not sure about the threw over throw exchange. Seemed odd to me.

Nathan, in some first pages, it's all telling, especially in a first person.
Is that really a no-no or is this a case by case kind of way it works/doesn't work?? Please explain.

Thanks.

This is so interesting. Love this feature. Also, so cool how the ordinary dilemma can still get a reader every time. Moving when you don't want to.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Not sure I understand the question, but hope my dissection of showing/telling clarifies things. It's not all telling that's bad (I mean, it's called storyTELLING), but just telling that should be shown that can trip writers up.

Sara Samarasinghe said...

Hi!
So for showing/telling, would it be better to use a paragraph of description to show what the protagonist is thinking rather than just telling the reader what the protagonist's thoughts are?

For example, if I wanted to convey that my protagonist is confused, would it be better to talk about some of the things on her mind instead of saying that so-and-so was confused about the situation?

Thanks in advance and sorry for the convoluted question! ;)

Nathan Bransford said...

sara-

There are always exceptions, but yeah, that's the basic principle.

Mike Wood said...

I always loved "Show and Tell" in Kindergarden and I still like it in my stories, so long as the emphasis is on the AND.

Show some, tell some...if it's all good, it's all good

If you can show without showing off, or tell without me wanting to tell you off, then there's no problem.

D.G. Hudson said...

Congrats, Erica, on being selected for critique. I like hearing the thoughts of the character (Kenz?)but the dialogue could use some polishing.

The familiarity of a parent, talking to their child, didn't seem to show in the mother's speech. Watch families in public places to get a better idea of this interaction -- the dialogue is usually short sentences, simple words.

The premise of the trauma of moving to a new town is a solid one, but I don't think a teenager would have a tantrum -- they usually sulk, rather than lose their cool.

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of teenagers who throw temper tantrums (in front of their parents or with their BFF).

ryan field said...

I always enjoy reading these edits.

Sara Samarasinghe said...

Thank you so much! :)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

True, but just because it happens in real life doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to work on the page.

Robert A Meacham said...

I enjoy these critiques.I have a greater understanding of balance now

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, Nathan.
I was just meaning that a temper tantrum could happen. And you're right, it might or might not work with a given story, but teenagers can be volatile while they are getting their hormones and emotions in order and one of the funniest scenes I ever read/saw was of a teen girl losing her mind with her boyfriend and alternately trying to pull her cool back together...

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Ah yeah, definitely agree that it's a realistic scenario.

Ezmirelda said...

I was confused with the whole Through/threw thing. I think it would be better if she rewrote the whole sentence instead. I think the author should also indicate whether the main character was a boy or a girl because the whole time I was reading I thought it was a boy.

John Jack said...

The issue I have as a reader with Tells is they come across as author reporting rather than narrator reporting of private viewpoint character actions, perceptions, and cognitions. They jeopardize reader rapport.

First-person narrator Tells tend to come across best when there's less autobiographically filtered reporting.

"Vini, vidi, vici."
I came, I saw, I conquered.

Lisa McLellan said...

Brave thing Erica, putting your writing up for public scrutiny like this.
I'd be quaking in my booties and downing packages of roll-aids to stem an ever rising tide of nausea.
Your unique voice does ring through in your writing!

treeoflife said...

Certainly not my genre, but I think this was quite well done. The issues raised were relatively minor. There was showing and telling, and while the balance may not be perfect, it wasn't bad.

Kenz might have seemed slightly like a stereotypical teenager, but there's nothing wrong with that yet. I don't expect stunning and unique characters so early on in a book.

There's room for polish here, but polish is all I'd call it. Overall it's certainly good enough for the reader to keep reading.

Brittany said...

I am a teenager, and I (very personally) think that this is quite generic. Her dialogue ,is stilted, and so are her thoughts. They are also undecided. The showing-not-telling is definitely a good idea. I loved some of the mom's lines, especially the moping line, and the last line and the line "This life isn't for us anymore" made me very curious about the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

Do I have to re-enter my entry in the forums every week to be randomly picked up for the critique, or is once fine, Nathan?
Thanks already!

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Once

Perri said...

I love this discussion about showing versus telling, especially as I've been paying attention to this in my own work and also in published (and well received)fiction lately.

I wonder if the reader gives an author a certain amount of leeway if he/she feels as if he/she's in good hands right off the bat.

Or perhaps, certain genres have slightly different rules? I've noticed, for example, that middle grade and some YA novels are much more concrete (More showing) while literary fiction takes liberties.

What do you think?

Mira said...

Your critique is so spot on, Nathan. You are so good at this! You state clearly what I'm thinking from a more vague stance, and I really appreciate it. I've noticed that my writing is improving and I think that is directly related to what I'm learning on your blog. Thank you!

And no, that's not sucking up. I rarely suck up, actually.

Erica75 - Although I do agree with Nathan's critique, I hope you are hearing the most important thing - that you have voice. Everything else can come with practice over time. Not voice. That's talent, and if you take anything from this critique, my hope would be that you take that part of it especially!

I don't really have anything to add, although I do have a question about the content. Frankly, I would expect the mother to be more sympathetic toward Kantz. Kantz doesn't want to move back because her father committed suicide in that town, right? That's pretty heavy. I'm not saying you should write the mother as more sympathetic, but the fact that she's not, tells me about her character. Was that intended?

Because the subcontext here is not that Kantz is bratty or having a temper tantrum, but that she's deeply upset at the situation she's faced with. Frankly, understandably upset. The tone here is very light, almost funny....

I'm guess I'm asking because I think one of the best ways to show and not tell is to really get into the heart of your character. So that you're not just writing your character, you're channeling her. You become Kantz, and express what she feels watching the furniture from her house get moved to a truck. How does she feel being forced to move back to a place with such traumatic and terrible memories? Knowing her mother isn't hearing her, or worse, doesn't care. What does she feel?

If what I'm saying feels on target, try writing from there. Let the scream come out in words.

Hope this is helpful, and please, please ignore it if it's not!!!

I wish you great success with your talent, Erika. This shows great promise, from my humble perspective. :)

CFD Trade said...

To Erica: I sure do hope I get to see where this is going sooner...good luck!

sooper said...

First off, really great voice. Jealous!

Secondly, about the temper tantrum thing, while I do think it reads a little young for a teenager it's not totally unheard of. A good reference for you might be A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray which I've just started reading this week. Her opening scene has the MC(16 yr old girl) throwing a tantrum to her mom about moving also (at least wanting to move away, but pretty much the same gist.) You might want to check it out.

SariBelle said...

First off, congratulations to you Erica on having your work critiqued, and I agree with everyone else about voice. Show vs. tell is something I struggle with myself so it's always good to see that demonstrated.

Nathan thank you so much for providing the page critique Mondays. It's so valuable to all us hopeful writers! Just a quick question about the word count, is this a hard and fast rule, as in 251 words would get your entry disqualified?

I think mine's 253 words, and ending it at 250 would have the page stopping half way through a sentence. But if 250 is the absolute max, no exceptions I will go back and do what I can to shorten.

Thanks!

swampfox said...

Show...Tell...Show...Tell...

It's like show me a rock and I'll tell you about a hard place.

Uhm...wait a minute, I didn't mean it like that.

reader said...

I liked the mom saying "Child-like antics don't suit you..."

It's a cut-you-off-at-the-knees type of line that moms are good at using. To me, it shows that the mom has been through this scenario before, that this isn't he first time the MC has expressed displeasure about leaving.

Michelle Miller said...

I think the word 'attempted' has to be left in the threw/throw sentence. Teenaged girls can't actually throw intimidating glances at burly movers, they can only attempt it.

Moni said...

Erica, I enjoyed reading your first pg, thanks for sharing!

I was wondering one thing, though...
Is internal monologue a way of showing things? I mean, not saying something like, "I was scared." but rather saying something like, "Oh crap, what am I going to do now?"

??

lotusgirl said...

Managing the showing vs. telling issue is something I've been working on a lot lately. I've also been working on not waffling with what the protag is doing. If she's glaring, let her glare. I've eliminated many almosts and sort ofs and thought abouts. It has been freeing.

Anonymous said...

I am baffled by your comments: the self-awareness for example comes an unspecified time after the action of stomping - this is past tense, you know. The idea that Erica should show what is clearly subtle thought is nonsense. And as for the desire for precision with the 'The two months...' buit - that IS precise and absolutely clear. How on earth could it refer to the announcement? As for the reference to the voice bit being unnecessary - again, nonsense. If she said it in a wheedling, sweet tone it would have a very different meaning.

This is a far better piece of writing than your critique suggests; it has far more subtlety than your comments suggest - and I loved 'just about growled': it captures the feeling perfectly (THAT is showing - it indicates the slight holding back, the nearly suppressed).

Anonymous said...

Hi there!

I am new here, but fell in love with your entire site the second I saw it. I am particularly fond of this because it has helped me tremendously with my own work. I do have a question about the fine line between using real life speech (I know that just because it CAN happen that way doesn’t mean it SHOULD). So, what is the distinction? If the voices in your head (I know, alarming to talk about them, but I mean the voices of your characters) say what you think would be the perfect bit of dialogue, then how do you edit them? At what point is it great dialogue that both informs and adds to their character yet isn’t stilted but unique, and of course not cliche? Sorry for the onslaught of questions, I just can’t help it.

Thanks in advance, you are the greatest!

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@8:38-

Fair enough about "just about growled," that may have been personal taste. But I still stand by that "apparently my desperation caused my body parts to take control over my brain" doesn't quite work. It's overly wordy, and I don't think more is gained than just having the character stomped.

The reason "two months" is imprecise is that it's not the two months that made her feel like she was moving her mind, but the announcement that happened two months ago. It's phrased incorrectly. It should be either something along the lines of "During the two months since... I felt like I was losing my mind," or "The announcement two months ago made me feel like I was losing my mind.

And I hope I didn't somehow imply that this isn't a strong page - I think it's a very good voice and there are lines that I really liked, though I stand by my comments.

ryan field said...

"True, but just because it happens in real life doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to work on the page."

This is soooo true! I've made the mistake and I've paid for it :)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@8:40-

Thank you! This post has a whole lot of thoughts on what makes dialogue work/not work.

Anonymous said...

It clearly wasn't the announcement but the subsequent two months which made the character feel they were losing their mind. We use this kind of phrasing all the time - 'this last week has really taken it out of me'; 'the years since my wife's death have drained me of all energy'. You misread and now are sticking to your view of what it should say - the English here is perfectly correct and clear. The 'over-wordy' comment still does not take account of time, and this kind of phrasing can be wonderful - it is here. That is the kind of phrase Wodehouse used often. You make another comment where you delete that the character attempted to throw and indimidating glare, changing it to 'I threw and intimidating...' However, the point here is that it was NOT an intimidating glare, since the recipients grinned. This is a young person and what is being described - from a later vantage point - is that kind of trying and failing and almost-doing. Read the sentence as you have it; it makes no sense.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I'm by no means suggesting that my critique is the be-all-end-all, and if you disagree fine, but I'd appreciate it if you gave me the benefit of the doubt instead of being so combative.

On the glance, I wouldn't mind if it was conveyed that she tried to throw an intimidating glare and knew it, but I'm sorry, I still feel like, "I did my best to throw the moving van workers an intimidating glare as I walked past them," unnecessarily wordy. I would prefer "I tried to throw... an intimidating glare" or "I threw my best intimidating glare..." I just don't think "I did my best to throw" reads well.

If you disagree: great! That's fine! Agree to disagree.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Anon,

The problem with the two months line is that it's imprecise. It's not entirely clear whether it was the announcement or the following period of time that caused the feelings of madness, particularly since there was no causal connection between the feelings, the time period and the announcement. It might be implied from context, but it's not entirely clear from the sentence itself. That is, that it was the time period (the two months) that made her doubt her sanity, but that the specific reason these two months caused such a reaction was on account of the decision to move. Again, this is implied loosely from the context, but the sentence itself could be more precise and offer greater clarity.

Which doesn't make it a bad sentence, by the way, merely one that could be tuned up a bit.

Erica75 said...

I understand the points being made here and thank everyone for their opinions and tips. That sentence (about the 2 months) was something I added when I cut my first chapter to eliminate "backstory." I now see some ways to keep my meaning for having it there, but make it more, well, precise.

Okay, now, I believe it's time to start thinking about something truly important. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade just signed with the Heat. ;)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Erica,

But I've yet to hear the most important thing... what are the Raptors going to get in return for a Bosh sign and trade?

:)

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

I fear it might be a basket of oranges and some gator meat.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Not that we'll need anything, you know, after we re-sign Amir Johnson. For 7 million a season.

Lisa R said...

Nathan:

Could you give an example of what you have in mind when you say you'd like Erica to SHOW instead of the sentence: "the reference to home bothered me more than I wanted my mom to know". What would be a good way of showing that?

Nathan Bransford said...

lisa-

That's really up to the author, but it could be done by having her thinking about leaving her friends behind, having her snap back at her mom that the new place is not her home (or think along those lines), etc. etc. Some action or thought that expresses/illustrates the sentiment that she's bothered by it, rather than simply telling the reader that she's bothered by it. Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Now that the other words are lined through (crossed out) the use of "threw" makes more sense to me.

Moni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moni said...

Nathan,
I'd love if you could tell me what do you think about using internal monologue as a way of showing what the MC is feeling.
Maybe you have a link to another one of your awesome posts?

Nathan Bransford said...

moni-

Here's a post on tone in 1st person, and here's a post on choosing between first and third..

I don't know that I have a post on balancing thoughts in first person narratives and when to be direct/indirect, but I'll think about it.

Moni said...

Thanks Nathan,

I read your other posts and you had some very nice thoughts. I especially enjoyed the part where you talked about the tension in first person (I usually write in first p.).

I was asking you this because the other day I was wondering what would happen to ME if a burglar broke into my house. Well, for starters I wouldn’t think, “I’m scared.” So I thought if that happened to a MC then his or her internal monologue wouldn’t say that. What I would think in that moment would be something like “Where did I leave my baseball bat?” or maybe “Should I hide behind the curtains?” And those thoughts, IMO, would SHOW that I’m scared.

Or if maybe it would be better to show the MC hiding behind the curtain instead of having him think if he should hide? Or have him grab the baseball bat and wait behind the door? But then, personally, I really like to be in the MC’s head, to know what s/he’s thinking (I suppose that’s because I tend to have a monkey mind and over think stuff :D). Well, basically, I wanted to know what your opinion about these things was.

Anyway, I’ve been wondering about internal monologue as a way of showing the MC’s feeling for so long, and this page critique made me think about it even more =)

Anonymous said...

I am just starting The Passage by Justin Cronin. It's a great example of a whole lot of telling and how that may not always be a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I slammed the car door shut. The ancient Mustang rocked, shedding rust and paint onto the hot asphalt. I could feel old Mrs. Vandermeyer's gaze creeping up my neck as I ran across the street to my front yard.

Damn, shit, damn, damn.

An army of moving men shuffled between our house and the enormous yellow truck labeled "Meg's Mega-Movers" parked in the driveway. Two of them cradled my battered old dresser in their hairy bear-paws. I tried to block their path, but they just side-stepped me. Grinning, the bastards.

Then I spotted my mother and stabbed a finger at the truck. "No. I said _no_. Get my stuff out of there."

My mother closed her eyes and did that New Age yoga-breathing thing that made my stomach curdle. "They're only here for the big furniture, Kenz. You have two night left to mope around."

"Fine. Great. I'll sleep on the floor then. But I am Not. Going. Anywhere."

"Kenz...." More breathing tricks. "We talked about it. I--We're going home." Then her eyes flicked open, bright and angry and brilliant green. "Listen to me for once. You can spend the night with friends, but we leave first thing Sunday morning."

She sidled past me to talk with the chief bear-handler, leaving me to do my own unhappy breathing thing. Oh sure, we had talked. We'd done nothing but talk for two months, ever since my mom announced we were moving. But for all that talk-talk-talk, my mother never heard anything I said.

Vespa, Wisconsin was the last place on earth I wanted to live. It was her home, not mine.

Kate said...

This is so awesome. I read the piece and really liked the voice, energy, conflict, and several key lines throughout. But something just felt off and I couldn't pinpoint what it was.

But Nathan can! Thanks, Nathan! And great job writer!

Erica75 said...

Last anon - Kenz doesn't swear. I know, probably not good in YA. I tried to make her swear this one time, with double-dog-dares, and all I got was a weak "crap?". It's a character flaw of the most generic variety and no matter how many military schools I've sent her to, I can't elicit one gd swear word out of her. It's exasperating, really.

AND DO NOT get me started on the mother. Not only does she do yoga, but she buys Kenz super-crappy-not-even-1989-Mustang-worthy cars. Seriously, like a 1991 Mercury Cougar. Gold.

There was this one time, back in 2001, I think it was, that I hired Meg's Mega-Movers. NEVER AGAIN!! You'd think a professional (ha) bunch of guys could properly box up my linens. Think again. Wrapped them around the wheels of my bed, they did. Ruined the best flour cloth I ever bought. No way am I putting them in my book.

Anonymous said...

Erica: Is there really a Meg's Mega-Movers? I made that up on the fly, honest.

As for the rest: this was just an example to show how you could add more details, more show instead of tell, without adding much length. As with any critique, take whatever works for you and disregard the rest.

Just one piece of advice: don't be afraid to use details that evoke strong emotions.

--eqb

Erica75 said...

eqb - I was totally kidding. Thanks for the ideas, really.

Anonymous said...

Erica: You're welcome. Now all you need to do is take the energy and emotion from your blog posts and transfer them to your fiction and you'll be all set.

Anonymous said...

eqb & Erica if you are still watching this post.

eqb-wow!that totally pulled me in.

Erica-wow your reply totally pulled me in. I agree with eqb-throw that into your page!

Bangalow Accommodation said...

Brave Erica ! Excellent critique :)

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