Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 2, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks so much to susanivt for offering her page! I think this opening has a nice spirit to it, and I think it does a good job of kicking off the novel with a whimsical tone and a good sense of character. While beginning with someone waking up is a bit of a standard trope, I nevertheless appreciate that this page doesn't try to do too much and instead just introduces us to the character.

My main concern about this opening is that the writing feels a bit stilted to me.

Stilted writing is a very common pratfall, and I think of it as a combination of three symptoms: 1) imprecision, 2) overly complicated phrasing, 3) the Yoda Effect.

What is the Yoda Effect? Well, I'm sure there's a proper grammar name for it, but it's basically when the verb and subject are reversed in confusing fashion. ("Judge me by my size, do you?", "Impossible to see the future is.") The Yoda Effect creeps into this page in a few places ("his whine announced the Doberman's launch" "Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her" "His quivering bulk against her side dissolved her anger."), and I think the sentences would read much more smoothly if they were reversed. ("she heard her Doberman's whine before he launched himself on the bed" "Dargo jumped off the bed and crouched next to her" "Her anger dissolved when she felt his quivering bulk against her side")

The result of the combined stilted symptoms is that this page never quite got into a rhythm for me and I didn't always believe the action. While I'm all for physical humor, I just don't know that more is gained by describing her fall with every single action in its parts rather than a more streamlined description. I tend to think that "and she fell off the bed in a heap" works better than "Kathryn flailed beneath the blankets in an attempt to get away. Misjudging the size of her new bed, she spread her arms as she slid over the edge. She managed to grip the flannel sheet and execute an impressive flip onto the floor."

I think this page could work with some polish and I would think about whether a less standard opening could better show this character in her element and possibly introduce some conflict, but it's clear that the author has a strong sense of character and that's an important step.


Kathryn knew she would have a bad day when she woke up to the rumble of the snowplow. Sure enough, his whine I first read this as the whine of the snowplow and wondered why the snowplow was a "he" before I eventually realized it was the dog's whine announced the Doberman's seems odd to me to refer to the dog as "the Doberman" rather than "her Doberman" - this is her pet, right? launch onto her bed see Yoda Effect above. Amid the unpredictable impacts should be "impact" of his paws, Kathryn flailed beneath the blankets in an attempt to get away. Misjudging the size of her new bed, she spread her arms as she slid over the edge. She managed to grip the flannel sheet and execute an impressive flip onto the floor.

Thump! do we need the sound effect?

"Damn it, Dargo! It's just a snowplow for Pete's sake!" May be a personal/geographic response, but I didn't believe the "for Pete's sake" - it seems like something a much older character would say.

Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her Yoda. His quivering bulk against her side dissolved her anger Yoda.

"It's okay, boy. Nothing's going to hurt you." Bending her arm at an odd angle necessary detail?, she stroked his chest and sighed into the carpet. He pressed his cold nose onto her bare leg and she rolled sideways, driving her elbow into the leg of her nightstand.


Her cherry nightstand could withstand the tremor, but she couldn't say the same "she couldn't say the same" doesn't quite make sense to me here for the item upon it. Looking up, she saw the large display of her alarm clock read 5:14 as it tipped over the edge, hitting her in the forehead. This seems like a physical impossibility. If she rolled over and knocked her nightstand such that something fell off, wouldn't it tip away from her and the alarm clock fall to the opposite side of where she hit the nightstand? I know, a nitpick, but this is one of those little details that our brains notice even subconsciously and something doesn't feel right until we think about why it's bothering us. UPDATE: I'm probably wrong on this, see comment section

"God, I hate Mondays."

An hour later, Kathryn stomped her boots in the lobby of Cameron IT Consulting. Leaving a trail of snow, she squeaked along the floor "she squeaked along the floor" makes it sound like she's crawling. toward the security desk. Chuckling, the guard covered his mouth and turned away. Why is this so funny to the guard? If there's lots of snow outside wouldn't everyone be tracking snow inside with possibly squeaky boots?

"Steve, I don't even want to hear it." Kathryn frowned,


Anne said...

I like the term "the Yoda effect." I always said inside out sentences but much better yours is. (see what I did there?);)

Jessica said...

I think the Yoda Effect is a good name for that, pretty much everyone knows what you mean then and we have so many technical terms already that sometimes it makes life easier to throw a comparison in there instead.

Anonymous said...

Too young to say, For Pete's sake?

I don't agree.

My sixteen year-old niece says for Pete's sake! And she's cool and hip, too! :)

T. Anne said...

Yes, Yoda has invaded many of my manuscripts as well. I'm glad you gave a name to this terrible disease. Great critique. I'm enjoying your perspective! I think the page is great by the way.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, perhaps it's a geographic thing. I don't hear it much in California, or I may just be unhip to what the kids are saying these days.

Nate Wilson said...

I love the line "Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her Yoda," even if that's not at all how you meant it.

Erica75 said...

The Yoda effect is exactly what had me wondering in my first read-through. At first read-through, I thought the snowplow was jumping on her and whatever scared her out of bed was trembling next to her. Glad to know it wasn't just me misreading (well, not entirely). Good job, Susan, and good tips to help you improve!

Linda Godfrey said...

More kudos for coining The Yoda Effect. It is something I continually fight in my own writing. I think of it as structure dyslexia.

Mira said...

I've given up critiquing on my own. I wait for you, Nathan, and then nod my head at everything you say. I feel very fortunate to be benefitting from your critiques.

And the Yoda effect - that is a great term!

And welcome back to the City. :)

susanivt, I agree with Nathan that the writing is somewhat awkward at times, but I love the spirit of this piece. I enjoy romance, but even more than that I love romantic comedy, and so few people can do it well. There's a lift and a lightness to this that feels familiar and welcome. Your character reads as likeable and very right for the setting! :)

Once you iron out the writing quirks, you may become a favorite author of mine.

Hurry up and do that, please. I want to read your books!

Oh, and in terms of paranormal, I have seen it done in a light romantic-comedy way, so I think this is completely on track.

Good luck!

Aaron said...

I agree with every one else- the Yoda effect is a great way of describing another popular mistake in peoples' writing. One thing, though: It WOULD be physically possible if Kathryn were lying on the ground, knocked her elbow on the front leg of her nightstand and the momentum push the clock over the edge. In fact, that's happened to me.

Kristin Laughtin said...

The Yoda effect is a great name for it. I think it often occurs when trying to avoid passive voice--i.e. it's possible lines like "Her anger dissolved when she felt his quivering bulk against her side" could have been rewrites of original and passive lines like "Her anger was dissolved by his quivering bulk against her side." Only the writer would know for sure.

I'll get nitpicky on the alarm clock thing. If the alarm clock wasn't solidly on the table, and maybe near the corner she bumped, and she bumped the table far enough, it's completely possible that it would have tipped forward and onto her instead of away. Of course, the page doesn't have enough detail for that to happen, but haven't you ever bumped into a table with something light upon it, like a picture frame? Did the frame fall backward every time, or did it occasionally tip forward (toward you)?

Anonymous said...

I'm guiltly of the Yoda thing. Mostly when I try to avoid beginnning each sentence with "I" or "She".


Nathan Bransford said...

Yeah, that's true about the alarm clock thing. I'll adjust the post.

JEM said...

I echo Nate on the Dargo/Yoda line. I actually thought you added Yoda, and I couldn't figure out why.

Echoing Anon at 1:35, I make frequent use of the phrase "for pete's sake." For me in particular, it's because religious beliefs prevent me from saying the other version of the phrase.

J. T. Shea said...

A lively opening, but the formal tone does indeed fight against the humor, as Nathan and others have commented. Unless it's deliberate? Inspired perhaps by Damon Runyon, who deliberately mixed stilted formality and slang in his Jazz Age sports and crime stories?

Very good, your Yoda Effect phrase is, Nathan. Remember it, I will.

Jordan said...

I think the light, comical tone of the piece is great!

Like everyone else, I agree with Nathan's Yoda effect point. I think that part of the problem for some of these is that we're trying a little too hard to vary sentence structure—and that variation comes in the form of a participial phrase.

Eight sentences here have a dependent clause with an "ing" verb—that's a lot. It's enough to really stand out to me.

Plus, those clauses imply simultaneity, especially when the clause is at the beginning of the sentence (as six of them are here). So "Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her" implies that the jumping and the crouching happened at the same time.

EditTorrent ( ), a blog by two editors, has really helped me with participial phrases. Once, they suggested we pull a book we love off the shelf and count the number of sentences on a page and then the number that start with participial phrases. No one found more than 5 on a page, and many people found none. (That doesn't mean those authors don't use them ever, or that you can't ever use them, but that we should be careful about using them.)

I do get a good sense of Kathryn and Dargo here. And I know I often try too hard to start with a punchy, hook-y first sentence (but really, they are so hard to do and seldom make sense), so I admire the courage to focus on the character at the beginning and establish sympathy with her first thing (something that can suffer in hook-y openers).

Anonymous said...

My thought was that the guard may be amused by her disheveled appearance and/or a bruise on her forehead or a black eye, which would probably come clear in the next line.

Scott said...

Great advice.

Love the “Yoda Effect” as critical terminology. Excellent way of describing it.

Agree with both the for and against regarding the falling clock. It could fall as described. Yet its falling could be better described.

Re “For Pete’s sake,” I think it can be a credible piece of dialogue, but the character needs to be established first as one who would say such a thing. Not the other way around.

One small point: I disagree with Nathan that “impacts” should be singular. While an impact is a collision of one body against another, in this case there is more than one body. It is a bit of a grammatical aggrandizement of paws, but there are multiple paws, and they therefore produce multiple collisions. As anyone who’s had a big dog jump on their bed can attest, those paws strike hard and repeatedly. ImpactS. Also, “amid” generally needs a plural.

A suggestion regarding the opening: Consider opening with the action. In the middle of it. Awoken by falling dog. The snow plow cause can be explained in the same way, but afterward. Plus, with enough pet-instigated destruction, the stated realization of an impending bad day (the current opening) probably isn’t necessary.

Alternate (simpler) version of above suggestion: Open with snowplow noise. Add dog. Skip realization.

All around, nice work, both the writing and the critique.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't so much "For Pete's sake" that seemed out of place, it was that the phrase was in the same sentance as "Damn it". It reads duplicative.


ARJules said...

LOL I'm glad someone stood up for those of us who actually do say "For Pete's sake!" I consider myself still quite young, and not in the "old fogey" category yet. While I currently live in the south bay, I am not originally from here. So it could be a saying located in my home geographical area, aka 'The South'. If you think about it, it does sound like it should come from a southerner. Doesn't it? (On a side note: who the heck is Pete?! And why do we always need to be worrying about the interests of Pete? How did he get to be so special?? :)

I think that Kristin is right about the possibility of the clock falling off the nightstand. It may be better to describe how the clock was already teetering on the edge of the nightstand prior to it falling on her head. It may make more sense that way,

Oh - and ditto on liking, "The Yoda Effect." I may have to steal that from you.

Anonymous said...

Looking up, she saw the large display of her alarm clock read 5:14 as it tipped over the edge, hitting her in the forehead.

I think the problem with this is how the clock tips over the edge, she reads the time, and it hits her in the head all at the same time. Getting rid of the hitting to, and hit her in the forehead would fix that.

But I totally got the guard thing at the end, he's laughing at the mark the clock left, which I thought was very funny:)

swampfox said...

The Yoda effect, I love it!!

Wait a minute. Did I just do it?

ryan field said...

Good crit!!

Kate said...

Yeah, the alarm clock issue is tricky. I lost a lamp in almost this same way (as described in the piece). You'd think items would fall in the same direction as the table. Not always the case, as some already mentioned.

I'll admit, I was so wrapped up in the action of it all that I really didn't notice the waking up beginning until closer to the end. I get right away that we have a sassy heroine and I like that.

Words like amid and upon stuck out to me. And while I think this is a fun "waking" scene, I'd be interested to what you could with some other, more unique devices. I see what you're going for--she woke up on the wrong side of the bed, dammit--but you might could establish this in another way and leave room for a more original first few paragraphs.

Overall, I really like the energy!

February Grace said...

Oh, so many times guilty of the Yoda Effect I have been.

Mend my ways, I will.

Thankful to you, Bransford Nathan, I am.


Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

For me the problem with the clock is the timeline, not how it falls. It all seems very slow. She rolls over, hits her elbow. Says "Ouch". Looks up. Reads the time on the clock. It falls, hitting her on the head.

It's a lot of description, and sort of drawn out. Yet if you bang your elbow on the nightstand, the clock's going to fall on you right then. I think the scene tries to do too much from inside her viewpoint in this moment, setting a sort of tension between what she would actually experience in this event and what the narrator wants to impart to the reader. The narrator wants to mark time, set the scene. The character, however, would simply be saying oh shit and rubbing both her arm and her head.

That friction in the narrative voice is subtle, but creates that vague effect of "something feels off..."

Just my two cents.

I also think there's a more interesting way to opening this story than waking up in bed, though I do like the voice and the sense of humour and the giant cowardly dog - who will do something fierce and protective before the end? Chekhov's dog in the first act and all...

Linnea said...

Personally I liked the description of her getting tangled in the blankets and falling off the bed. It's a good visual that takes me back to my teens when I had just such a moment with my own dog!

Jessica said...

I agree that the Yoda Effect sentences you pointed out are awkward, but I wonder at the rewrites you suggested. My critique partners would slap my hands for using filters like "she heard her Doberman's whine" or "she felt his quivering bulk". Are they being overly sensitive to phrasing like that? I'm wondering if the author has crit partners like mine and is trying to write around filters.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Nathan: you are good. You hit the nail right on the head.

But I would personally like more to happen in the first few sentences than for the main character (apparently) to have a bad day, or difficult time waking up.

And Jessica: I think your critique pals should listen, as it appears Nathan did, to the actual cadence as well as grammatical structure of the sentences. His suggestion, in the instance provided, is excellent editing. Most often, you want subject, then verb.

Unless you happen to be, for instance, trying to capture a particular unusual pattern, as for instance is so excellently done by Pat Conroy introducing the narrator in "Prince of Tides," in which he uses the pattern of the actual Gullah accent and the relentless rhythm of the ocean's waves to set the scene.

But credit is due any writer willingly putting their first sentences up for critique! And success, likely, to any writer willingly absorbing especially Nathan's suggestions...

Serzen said...

Perhaps what you're looking for with your "Yoda Effect" is the "dangling modifier." At the very least, those sentences you singled out seem to be more a case of dangling modifiers than any other error I can put a name to at the moment.

For what it's worth, my favorite example is from Groucho Marx: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."

johnny said...

Maybe this is harsh, but I would put the book down the moment I encounter "for Pete's sake!" especially right after "Damn it." It doesn't add any value to the story, and causes me to distrust the writer, believing that if I continue, I would endure many page fillers.

Phyllis said...

Sorry to be such a stickler, but your definition for the Yoda effect threw me off at first because I seem to use subject and verb more strictly.

"His whine announced the Doberman's launch."
"His whine" is subject, and "announced" is the verb, so there's no inversion here.

Maybe, it would be better to use terms that are not as clearly defined grammatically, like agent and action. The agent (the Doberman) should be introduced before the action (whining and launching).

I love the term Yoda effect, though. Great connotations.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure "For Pete's sake" is out of place. I think it depends on the circumstance. Firstly, we don't know how old the main character is, though I get the sense she is a young adult.

Secondly, even if she is young, if she is surrounded or brought up by someone older who might influence her. It's happened to me. My father used to say "Damn it all to hell!" and, just by virtue of being influenced by him and admiring him, I've picked up that colloquialism and use it whenever I can.

I agree, that the Yoda effect is a good way to describe these sentences. Now I'll have to be more careful when I write by keeping the Yoda effect in mind should help. I hope.

Lucy said...

"For Pete's sake" is probably a reference to St. Peter, much in the same vein as "Gosh."

I don't know whether it's geographical, cultural, or what have you, but it's not generational. I grew up saying it, and I'm not forty yet. To me, it sounds pretty natural in anybody's mouth.

I didn't have a problem with the character's mutterings, or even the way she fell off the bed. I mean, it's a new bed; I can sympathize.

The phrasing did feel forced. That's a common problem with openings. They're like first children; they'd better do everything right. Or else. And you monitor their every step, and who they go out with, and what time they'll be home; and why can't you be like everybody else's opening, and how do you think you'll ever get admitted to Harvard? And then they get rebellious, and start hanging out with bad syntaxes, and the first thing you know, they're getting into fights and then you get this call that your baby is in jail for murdering the English language.

Sorry, I got carried away.

But I like the concept. Getting bounced on by the dog, falling out of bed. Yep, that sounds like my house.

LaylaF said...

I, too, loved the term "Yoda effect". Great job editing, Nathan. You nailed it. You are good really. =)

I also really liked the character. She sounded fun and clutzy. It makes me want to know what happens next.

Bill said...

I've called this kind of thing yoda-speak for a while, too. I usually hear it in bad poetry and it's usually more extreme and used when someone needs to make something rhyme and can't do it unless rearrange the sentence they must do. For example:

You know it's me that you can trust.

Tell you that I love you, I must.

Still this applies, even to a smaller degree, to the writing sample. Distracting it can be, unless applied consistently and predictably.

The writing sample was somewhat interesting, but a tad overwritten and I'd have to read more (after it's been tightened) to see if I'd want to keep reading. Thanks to the author for offering for critique. My own writing, I must now check.

Anonymous said...

I like your beginning! I want to read more because my mind already imagines Kathryn, sporting a clock bump to the head, about to meet some yummy guy.

Nathan wondered about the guard chuckling at her - but I thought it was because she'd have a big red mark on her forehead from her falling clock. I don't know if that's what you intend?

I also agree with Jordan. I, too, follow the edittorrent blog and I also stumbled over "Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her". Check out their site, it's well worth the visit :)

Go, the Yoda! lol!


Timothy Fish said...

I’m going to disagree and say that the Yoda Effect is a poor term to use for these sentences because they don’t sound like Yoda. For example, instead of “His whine announced the Doberman’s launch” Yoda would say, “The Doberman’s launch, his whine announced.” Instead of “Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her” we would have “Off the bed, Dargo jumped. Next to her, Dargo crouched.” The Yoda Effect puts reverses the “what” and the “how.” This puts emphasis on the “what,” but it doesn’t reverse the subject and verb as much as it moves both the subject and verb to the end of the sentence.

Elaine AM Smith said...

"Oh, so many times guilty of the Yoda Effect I have been.

Mend my ways, I will."

February Grace

To February's post, I'd just like to add DITTO ;)

Rowenna said...

Eensy nitpick--like Scott, I also disagree that impact should be singular. Anyone who has had a large animal decide to take a jog across the bed with them in it knows--it's not one jounce but repeated impacts from bony paws that gets really annoying :) PS Thanks, Cat, for deciding to wake me up this way this morning.

I would be careful with phrases like For Pete's Sake--I say things like that a lot--and goodness gracious and holy mackerel--but I think you have to be sure the character would say it. If it fits, great! If not, say Damn or whatever the character would say.

LOL @ Yoda Effect. Yes, I see this a lot in my own writing--failed attempt to be clever or artistic, I suppose :)

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about something. I often see different kinds of writing in different genres. Mainstream/literary tends to be tighter and cleaner. And personally, I wouldn't edit a romance manuscript the same way I'd edit a literary manuscript.

In other words, romance readers wouldn't pay attention to "for Pete's sake," but literary readers would cringe.

I'm not saying one genre is better or worse than another. But I do think they are different. And when it comes to editing books in different genres I'm not sure a romance editor would agree with a literary editor.

Gerri said...

The problem I'm having isn't so much the Yoda Effect, but it is the sequencing of action. Something that popped out at me:

Leaving a trail of snow, she squeaked along the floor toward the security desk.

In this case, the visual is the trail of snow first, and then we get her squeaking. The effect, i.e. trail of snow, needs to be preceeded by the cause, i.e. her walk.

Sure enough, his whine announced the Doberman's launch onto her bed. Amid the unpredictable impacts of his paws, Kathryn flailed beneath the blankets in an attempt to get away.

Again, poor sequencing of action leads to awkward description. The Doberman? Needs to be up front. Make sure we know that the dog whine is first. He whines. Then he jumps on the bed. No announcing. (It's a POV slip to phrase it that way. She hears his warning/announcement.) The second sentence also needs to be reworked to make the action flow.

Jumping off the bed, Dargo crouched next to her.

This sentence might well be the perfect teaching example of why the gerund clause gets so much bad press. The -ing clause indicated simultaneous action. Dargo cannot jump off the bed and crouch next to her all at the same time. Dargo must jump off the bed and THEN crouch next to her.

It's not the scene content that's bad; I can see plenty of comedic value in what's going on. However, prose, prose, prose. Polish up the sequence of actions, take a little more time to make things flow. It'll help a lot.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Learn not to speak like Yoda, I must.
But difficult it is, when you've watched to much Star Wars. Start thinking in strange patterns, you do. Tempting, it is, to write an entire book in this format. Resist, I will. Resist, I will. Resist, I will...

John said...

Someone should write a book in Yodaese, for Pete's sake! We have the artsy-fartsies writing in present tense, writing with ad-hoc structure and blatant disregard for any standards, so I'm all for a Yodaese book. At least he doesn't suffer from overstuffed verb.

I just finished reading Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao book and was all like, WTF, I don't have to use quotes for dialog? Am I an ignoramus? Did I miss something? Should I add quotes to my asked-aloud rhetorical questions I just asked in blatant disregard to Nathan's severe disdain of rhetoricalosity?

Or maybe, just maybe, I wasn't rhetoricalizing just then.

But I did like the book. The Junot Diaz one.

Long live Yoda!

Patrice said...

Going against the crowd (and Nathan, gasp!) I liked the physical detail and slow comedy of this bit:

"Amid the unpredictable impacts of his paws, Kathryn flailed beneath the blankets in an attempt to get away. Misjudging the size of her new bed, she spread her arms as she slid over the edge. She managed to grip the flannel sheet and execute an impressive flip onto the floor."

But awkward the order of the words is, I agree.

Thanks to our brave writer for volunteering! Learn we all do, through you.

(Word verification: DECOWART. Ewww.)

TKAstle said...

@ Lucy - I cracked up at your comparison of first pages to first children. Too true.

@ Susan, the author - Romance is not my favorite genre, but I enjoyed your light tone and likable charater(s). (Dogs count as characters, right?) Any crit points I would offer have already been covered by others, so I'll just add that this looks like it would be a fun read.

Sign me up as a fan of the term Yoda effect, too.

Anonymous said...

I love these first page critiques. They are immensely helpful. I went to a conference, and the biggest learning experience I had was at the first-page workshop listening to the agents state when they would stop reading and why. I very much appreciate your taking the time to share your professional expertise in this matter.

JennaQuentin said...

Question on fixing the "yoda effect" - isn't it generally taboo to use the filtering of saying "she saw" "she felt"? I'm always afraid of losing the subconcious connection with the protagonist when I use phrases like that!

taylor said...

this first page is great

susaninvt said...

I just wanted to thank Nathan for the critique and everyone else for the feedback. This was actually a new opening for one of my manuscripts after a critique partner said my other opening wasn't "detailed enough." Alas, I reverted to my original opening after several other critiquers hated this one...can't please everyone.

I originally fell into the hole of starting too many sentences with "she did this", "she did that", or "he jumped off the bed and then." My -ing were my attempt to move away from this, but I haven't quite mastered it (in this page anyway).

Unfortunately, I've decided this manuscript has to go into a drawer and I have to write another with less cliches. Have you ever had a manuscript you loved with a great story but people had too many questions with the first chapter (which were all explained in the next chapters) to move on? I believe in dropping subtle hints and then explaining later, but nobody seems to like that...

This was actually a romantic fantasy (Kathryn and pet pulled into another world) and she's in her thirties. I say "for pete's sake" all of the time, but that's because I trained myself with my young children around. You should have heard me before I had them...

Anonymous said...

I only realised I had the Yoda effect after I read this post. Now I realise my manuscript is full to the brim with the yoda disease... and I only did it because I wanted a more intresting way of starting my sentences. Speaking of which, you should make a post on overcoming the yoda effect... I mean, how do you start sentences in more intresting ways WITHOUT falling foul?

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