Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 16, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique 8/16/10

Thanks very much to the intrepid WilliamJJones for offering his page for critique! has been very good to Mr. Jones lately as he was also randomly selected to be a participant in Be An Agent for a Day II. Now if he would just buy a lottery ticket for me we should be all set.

This is a solid page and it's hard not to be struck by the essential question: is the voice in the protagonist's head their own or someone else's? Who is this mysterious other person? Where are the voices leading the protagonist? There's some good mystery here that will keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next.

This page gets off on solid footing and I think it works reasonably well as is, but aside from the usual tightening-up edits, I have one sneaking worry about it: vagueness.

It's so difficult to build mystery in an opening. There's a very tricky balance between giving the reader what they need to know to understand the mystery vs. leaving some questions unanswered so it's mysterious vs. holding out on the reader by leaving out too many details, and I feel like this page may tilt just a bit too much to the latter. The (very) rough rule of thumb about building mystery, especially with first person narratives, is that the reader should see/know roughly what the narrator see/knows. When a first person narrator isn't letting the reader in on what they know they risk feeling like the author is holding out on them.

There are moments in this page that feel like the author is cheating a bit with a first person perspective (e.g. "The cameras had not detected this person." - how does the protagonist know this?), and there were other times when it felt like the protagonist was unnecessarily withholding detail from the reader. The mechanics of this: "The classroom door opened easily despite being locked." go unexplained (though perhaps will come later). This: "If this person was like me, I would get an answer" will have the reader saying "like what?" "what answer?" And this: "I thought I knew where the person was going" had me saying, "Well, why can't I know where the protagonist is guessing this person is going?" One or two of these on their own would probably be fine and contribute to a sense of mystery. Add them up together and the reader might feel like the narrator is being overly coy.

The last point I'd make on vagueness is that while the narrator seems to be aware that they are listening to voices in their head, aside from casually wondering if they're going crazy the character seemed oddly ambivalent about the voices, and I wasn't sure I fully believed that - if you were aware of the voices in your head wouldn't you be scared/awed/trying to get rid of them/something by them? And I was similarly confused by how nervous/apprehensive the protagonist is. While he/she quickly hides and breathes a sigh of relief when he/she isn't caught, he/she then feels no urgency to leave. So is this character scared or not? Why would they nearly escape and then feel no urgency to leave?

Overall, while I think this page is already in a reasonably good place, I feel like it would be just a bit stronger if the reader were let a bit more inside the protagonist's head and that just a bit more personality and emotion were infused into this opening.


Title: I'm a Nobody
Genre: YA Fantasy
250 Words


I obeyed the voice in my head without question. The classroom door opened easily despite being locked I was confused by this - at first in a good way, but then as the mysteries accumulated I started feeling a bit held out on. I closed it silently and turned to the dark room. Moments later the sound of footsteps came from the hall. They were fast and sharp. They grew closer, until they were just outside the room, and then they began to fade. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had almost been caught trespassing "knowing I had almost been caught trespassing" reads just a tad awkwardly to me. Maybe break this up into "I breathed a sigh of relief. I had almost been caught trespassing" or otherwise show that the character is trespassing" (i.e. If I had been seen it would have meant X consequence).

It was nearing midnight, and the school’s security system was working, but I felt no urgency to leave I found this confusing - if they're scared of being caught why no urgency?. The cameras had not detected this person How does the protag know?. “Someone else can do it too?” I asked. Does the narrator ask this inside or outside of his/her head? If inside need to clarify, if outside, why would the narrator risk being caught by speaking?


I obeyed, throwing open the door are they no longer worried about getting caught? Wouldn't "throwing open" the door make a bigger noise than slipping through it? and chasing the source of the footsteps through the dark halls.

I knew that hearing voices meant someone was crazy, and obeying the voices without question "without question" feels repetitive from the first line made them dangerous. But I wasn’t crazy or dangerous. The voices in my head were always right. I didn’t know what that made me this feels a bit devoid of emotion - how does the narrator feel about the voices? What do they want to do about it? .

If this person was like me, I would get an answer an answer about what? This feels a bit like a mystery upon a mystery. We don't even know what the question is, let alone wondering about an answer - it's tough to feel curious about it when we don't even know what the protagonist is wondering about and how what they're wondering about matters. It could literally be anything. Or does the protag mean an answer about whether they're crazy? If so I wonder if that could be clearer.

I followed the source of the footsteps through the school, past the main office and into a hall full of dull green lockers. I thought I knew where the person was going, though I couldn’t be sure wonder if we should know where the narrator thinks they're headed . After two more turns and a walking through this reads awkwardly - extra word? a short hall past a security camera, they were in front of a door if the protag can now see the person should they still be a "they". It looked like every other door in the school, with an oversized steel doorknob and peeling red paint this is an odd bit of description - the protagonist finally sees the person they've been alternately hiding from/chasing, and the first thing they describe is the door?.


Julie Musil said...

Big thanks to you for the learning tool, and thanks to William J Jones for offering his work for critique.

swampfox said...

Nathan, you'd make a great teacher.
But I suppose it's just another facet of being an agent.

Stephanie McGee said...

Very interesting thoughts about too much vagueness.

Julie20201 said...

Interesting page. I agree with all your comments. (As an instructor of mine is fond of saying, that and $2 will get me on a subway.) BTW, swampfox, he is sort of a teacher to all of us who read his blog.

Emily White said...

This is a great critique, Nathan! I held off on posting because when I read this excerpt I felt like something was off, but I wasn't quite sure what it was.

You're absolutely right about the mystery. There were just a tad too many questions where we could have at least gotten some clue as to what was going on.

That being said, I still rather liked this opening. The writing drew me in enough to want to turn the page. I'm sure with a bit of editing, this will be absolutely amazing.

Kim Batchelor said...

The only sentence I have a slightly different take on is, "It was nearing midnight, and the school’s security system was working, but I felt no urgency to leave." This piques my interest. Why no urgency under these circumstances? Yes, a tad vague, but it made me want to know more about this person, or tells me something about him/her.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

hmmm...the vagueness didn't bother me, but I can see your point that if there was any more mystery, I'd either get confused or feel like the author was trying too hard to drag me along.

Great catch on the statements that were "cheating" outside the protag's POV. Those are always the hardest for me to notice in a crit.

I seriously love your story (so far), William J Jones! :)

Suzi McGowen said...

Except for "I thought I knew were he was going" I didn't feel that the author was being coy or holding out on me.

Here's what I thought was going on (though I could be wrong) our character has the ability to move through locked doors and pass by security cameras without being seen.

He(?) is led by voices that direct him and they've been right often enough to know that as long as he does what they say fast enough, he'll be ok.

The problem is that he doesn't know how he came by these "gifts". He's run into someone else that seems to have many (if not all) of the same gifts as he does, and he's following this person in hopes of getting answers to his questions about who, what, why, and where these gifts came from.

I'd need more pages to know if the author plays honestly or not. I do know that I'd hate if he started explaining to himself things that he already knows. (Example, "I moved through the locked door, knowing it would only open for me, and remain locked for everyone else.")

People don't explain what they already know to themselves.

Mira said...

Nathan, you're brilliant.

When I read this, I was having to work a bit too hard to figure out what was going on. And like Emily, I wasn't quite sure what was going on until Nathan explained it. It's so subtle! Wonderful critique.

WilliamJJones, you are a lucky duck to get such on target feedback. And I loved this story - very intriguing. You 'had' me with the voice telling the MC what to do. Very nice hook.

I'll look forward to reading your book one day - this is totally my genre.

Best to you!

William Jones said...

Wow, I think I'm going to go buy that Lottery ticket. Thanks for the critique, and all of the comments.

I see what you mean about being too vague. It's hard to judge how much information to give a reader when I already know the reasons behind what's happening.

And Suzi was right about wat I was going for.

Duke Needham said...

I liked it. It drew me into the situation, what I would have liked to have seen is a little more description. I think he could have fleshed out the character by describing things around him/her. A reader can learn a lot about a character just by p.o.v. description. But then again, this is just the beginning.

J. T. Shea said...

Monkeys are great but I still think Ninja Space Cats would beat them hands down!

Abeyance, people! Abeyance and patience. We've only got the first 250 words here. All your questions could be answered in the next paragraph. This IS a good exercise, but I hope it does not encourage writers to overstuff their opening 250 words.

I assumed the protagonist knew the cameras had not detected the other person because no alarms sounded and nobody came to investigate. I also assumed the protagonist was familiar with the internal voice. But I don't mind if my assumptions turn out wrong. The guessing game is part of the pleasure of reading for me.

Thanks to William M. Jones and Nathan and all commenters.

Maya said...

WilliamJJones -
My you are a lucky one to get picked twice!
I have to admit, like Nathan, I was confused about what was going on.

“Someone else can do it too?” I asked.
I didn't realize this referred to the person being able to escape detection by cameras for some reason. After reading Suzi's explanation, it made sense. But consider "I guess I'm not the only who can escape detection". Also, I think it makes more sense for the character to think these words rather than say them allowed.

Also, instead of calling the mysterious person "the person" all the time, which seems awkward, as if you are deliberately trying to hide the gender, perhaps you might rephrase it to "shadowy figure". Seems a little more artful and explains why you don't know the gender.

Overall, intriguing premise, but like Nathan I could have used some more precise descriptions to alleviate confusion at points.

Good luck!

Maya said...

Whoops, I meant "say them aloud" in the second paragraph above. Brain problems...

ryan field said...

Good critique.

Chuck H. said...

Glad to see I wasn't the only one with questions. Thanks, Mr. Jones, for putting your work out there for criticism. Keep at it. You have some good stuff.

Thanks, Mr. Bransford, for showing us how it's done.

Jaycee said...

Excellent critique, Nathan. When I read William's excerpt, I was pulled directly into the scene and wanted to read more immediately.

The only problem is that in a work of fiction, you want your readers to have an endearment for the protagonist. In William's piece, I don't know the protagonist (not even his name), I don't know how he found himself in the building, so I don't really care much about him. I just want to read more because I care more about the voices in his head than the character himself.

Mira said...

J.T., actually what I'm noticing from the sample first 250 pages is that most authors are rushing and put way too much in the first page, imho.

In this first 250 words, the MC hides behind a door, decides to follow a mysterious intruder, creeps down a hallway and watches them. All while pondering the voices in his/her head and hoping s/he can get some answers from the intruder.

I say: slow down alittle! For the first 250 words, just hiding behind the door and listening to the voice is probably enough. Then you can give the reader some grounding in the setting and with the character and introduce the voice. Give some answers, or at least hints as per Nathan's suggestions. Slow down alittle. That's my opinion, anyway.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Looks like somebody needs a nap.

Anonymous said...

I've read this before somewhere...
reading through the notes it seems I may have read it here.

When reading it I thought that a lot what doesn't work for me now are the same things that didn't work before; Nathan is spot on and I think you really need to make all the changes he suggests.

That said it's a lot cleaner this time, so good job on the improvements you made.

Anonymous said...

Is 250 words enough to completely set up a novel? Sorry I'm not an expert but it just intrigued me that things needed to be completely clear within 250 words -perhaps things become clearer within the first 500???

Pip said...
^^The post above is where I read the quote you claimed never existed. Not necessarily talking about writing every day, rather bypassing a large chunk of life for writing. There's procrastination and then there's hermitage.

Nathan Bransford said...


Not sure what you mean about bypassing life. All I was saying in that post is that the only way to finish a novel is to spend at least part of the time writing when you don't feel like it. I don't know many writers who didn't have to plow through some stretches that were really difficult at some point in the course of writing a novel. And the only way to overcome those feelings is BIC.

Anonymous said...

"And the only way to overcome those feelings is BIC."

I second this. I wouldn't have over fifty novels published if I hadn't forced my BIC.

LaylaF said...

Nathan, As always you've done an excellent job. I agree w/swampfox, that you would make an excellent teacher.

And to WJJ, I was indeed intriqued by your story line, brief as it was in 250 words. I think, like anonyomous that maybe if we had another 250 words, it may have all fallen into place.

But, all in all, I would be interested in reading the full novel when completed. Sounds like a fun read!

Jeff said...

I think the vagueness might come from being dropped into a story that might have been going on for some time. A couple of examples as a contrast might be The Talented Mr. Ripley or any Dashiell Hammett book. In the beginning, we are introduced to the characters and strange situations, the beginning of plots. But we have no idea where they are going or how strange they are going to get. By the time a scene like you have written takes place, we know what to be afraid of and what is at stake. As much as I now hate the phrase What is at Stake, I, as a reader, want to be let in on enough to know why I'm afraid. I was also thinking about the Vonnegut rules I printed out and have somewhere. Number one is tell the reader everything you can up front. Then we know where we are and WTF is going on. This is good suspense, but I don't know why I should be afraid, or anxious. I wanted to post yesterday but I didn't know how to be constructive, and then I read Nathan's post from today and realized, with his comment about black and white and YA novels, it seems it is constructive to lay out a simple and understandable background for a reader, such as me, to know why I care. Another good example might be The Third Policeman, as weird as that book gets, and it is a bit of a mystery, I know the character before the weird stuff starts happening. I hope this was constructive. Due to my lack of BIC, I am more of a book lover than a writer.

Lora said...

Great critique, and a very interesting page. I'm definitely curious to read more of this story!

Anonymous said...

I'm with J.T. on speed of narrative and the assumptions made--the camera thing didn't bother me because I thought an alarm would have gone off and guards would have come running. Maybe the key to that bit is the WAY it's written. Maybe just pull the security camera part. Or say that the cameras must not have detected her, either because (whatever bad thing...sirens/dogs attacking) didn't happen. Less a POV/prior knowledge issue and more a specificity/detail type thing. I agree with the other parts of Nathan's crit. And I have to think that in all things writing, he would know better than me.
(Question for Nathan: Feedback. One person "gets it," one does not and your ratio stays that way, 50/50. Whether the "it" refers to style, word choice or whatever, what do you do? I mean, what do you recommend and what, personally, have you done in that situation? Like William, I'm just getting some betas and it seems like a minefield. One person's offended at all the drum-beating (there was a drum?), another thinks you're a wuss and wants you to take a position, already. Just an example. Like I said, it could be anything. And then I consider first agent/editor reactions to the Vonnegut-esqe i.e. those with really powerful, but oddball voices...)
Overall, William's 250 really pulled me in and it all made sense to me. I look forward to reading the book. Thanks, William, for putting yourself out there for all of us to learn. Thank you Nathan for teaching.

Related Posts with Thumbnails