Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, August 9, 2010

Page Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks very much to Petronella for offering today's page, which instantly had me wishing that I had six brains, one of which would be plugged into a vast library. Um. When can I sign up for the surgery and do I need to bring my own Novocaine?

Honestly though, it's a very compelling premise and I'm curious about where this character will be taking their six brains. However, I had some concerns about the prose in this page, and there are two main culprits: imprecision and overstuffed sentences.

An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too much into a sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.

Basically: overstuffed sentences tend to go off in unexpected directions (one clause doesn't lead directly to the next) and/or are filled with superfluous detail that obfuscates rather than clarifies.

There are two overstuffed sentences in this page ("I learned of other things I needed to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form." and "Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence.") that would benefit from having superfluous detail removed or otherwise clarified (see below in the redline).

And in terms of precision, there was phrasing that didn't quite connote what the author intended and some grammar/spelling errors that tripped me up.

If this paragraph were smoother, the visceral experience of a character slowly becoming conscious with multiple brains would be more immediate and gripping.


Thistledown: Genesis
Genre: Science Fiction

Chapter 1: Jay’s Story: Birth

I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. At the same time "At the same time" doesn't really connote "simultaneously" for me, which is how it's intended here. It's more commonly used to mean "However," so I had to re-read it when I realized it was intended to mean "simultaneously", the Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the many librarians allowed me access to but a tiny part of the vast database. In_spite of the small size of the area I find this confusing - is it a physical area? We don't normally think of electronic databases in terms of physical space , I delighted in all the knowledge I found there . Into my dark, silent world came light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones. I learned of other about the things I needed would need to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form. It would be a long time before that would happen this feels confusing since it's in first person/past tense and presumably the narrator would know how long it took. Maybe just say "I spent X days/months/years in that state?. In the meanwhile, I played in my part of the library.

Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional. Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence. This feels like it should come later - do we need to know this now?

I waited, impatient to be born. After an indeterminate period of time Reads awkwardly. Maybe just say "Finally?" or "At last", the top of the tank slid aside and a blurry red-lit world revealed itself. Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing position. The owners of the hands Awkward. Missed opportunity to describe what these people/beings look like. Or, if the narrator can't see, just combine with the previous sentence to say "Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing and wiped the clear birth fluids from my body, making certain most the the jelly-like substance fell back into the tank.


Just using the author's own language and incorporating the changes above it would read:

I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. The Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the librarians allowed me access to a tiny part of the vast database, and I delighted in all the knowledge I found there. Into my dark, silent world came a rainbow of colours and sounds. I spent X months in that state, playing in my part of the library and learning about the things I would need to know when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank

Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional.

I waited, impatient to be born. At last, the top of the tank slid aside and a blurry red-lit world revealed itself. Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing position and wiped the clear birth fluids from my body, making certain most the the jelly-like substance fell back into the tank.


Livia said...

I can hook you up with some extra brains. Just give me the go ahead and I'll fax over our liability waiver. Don't worry, it looks long and complicated, but it's really quite innocuous. We'll furnish the novocaine, although you might want to have some tylenol or ibuprofen on hand for the post op recovery. Look forward to doing business with you.

DiDi said...

Bravo! I didn't comment, as I read my comments earlier, written by brains that were not mine to claim. :) Love the critique and rewrite. Concise with clarity. Bravo!

Livia said...

And unfortunately, due to DRM issues, you'll have to specify whether you'd like your brain connected to the Kindle library, Nook, or iBooks.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Spot on.

And, you know, six brains is a lot of maintenance. Sometimes just one is a challenge.

Jil said...

Petronella, your story sounds fascinating. One thing I found especially interesting was the difference in meaning between an English person's writing and an American's. I presume you are in Europe. I grew up in Britain so understand some of the phrases Nathan removed. To me they seemed normal although I don't use them that way myself. Good lesson for me to watch it though!
I wonder what will happen to this poor soul!

MBW aka Olleymae said...

I definitely agree with the overstuffed sentences being simplified or broken down, but to be honest, I felt that the "incorporated" version lost some of the voice of the first version.

I got a Jack Vance/Matthew Hughes feel from the voice--like the narrator is intelligently verbose, so to me, phrases like: "light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones" and "After an indeterminate period of time" lined up with the voice I had already started hearing as I read.

I think the revised version loses some of that personality.

Usually I agree with you, Nathan, 100%--so this is kinda a weird exception. :/

Thanks for sharing, Petronella!!

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree with you that the incorporated version loses some life, particularly without adding anything to it. Without smoothing over some of the changes and the breaks it's going to read a bit awkwardly. I would just think of the incorporated changes as a framework that could be built upon.

ARJules said...

I have to agree with Nathan on this one. When a reader, like myself, has to re-read sentences, it takes them out of the story. Instead of getting immersed into the characters and plot, I waste time and energy just trying to wade through the prose.

However, I also agree that it is a very interesting idea. And man, what I wouldn't give to be able to plug my brain, or multiple brains as the case may be, and download whatever information I need. *starts daydreaming*

*sigh* Oh how I wish....

ARJules said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Surly Jason said...

Every time I have extra brains I end up eating them because mmmmm ... brains.

You really know your shiz Me B. I love a good sci-fi, and while this snippet was pretty good, your every hit found a nail-head.

swampfox said...

I'd like to have some extra brains to pass out when school starts. Like extra pencils, ya know?

flibgibbet said...

Great premise. There's enough happening here to keep me reading, despite some confusion and re-reading on my part.

The first sentence, "I became aware..", threw me. I took this to mean, "I became aware of such and such when..." rather than understanding it as the first instant of "self-awareness". It made sense to me only when I read further.

I'd be tempted to combine this opening setence into something resembling: I became self-aware the moment The Library, a vast fountain of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain.

From there, as a reader, I'd be delighted to learn that this was just the first of six brains waiting to be activated. (I'm assuming each brain is sequentially more and more sophisticated).

Good job author.

Anonymous said...

Nathan's re-write, overall, is better, but like others have hinted, long sentences should not be discouraged, as long as they don't dominate, are relatively easy to absorb, and add to voice.

And I agree that agents and editors from one cultural writing environment need to be careful that a phrase that is not of their experience is not accessible to others.

On a blog recently (can't remember which), a person wrote that because they used the Chicago Manual of Style, their form of a particular thing must be correct.

That may or may not be so, depending on the country of publication.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Thanks for this. I am often guilty of overstuffing my sentences. I think I've improved, but it's something I have to watch out for, and even if some of these edits still need some smoothing over, they give me ideas of what to do. (Re: "smoothing over, I second mbw, whom you've already addressed. Some of your changes seem more stylistic than strictly necessary and I didn't have issues with some parts that tripped you up. Hurrah for varying perspectives?)

The concept is fascinating, though, so I hope the author can pull it together!

J. T. Shea said...

Interesting opening, Petronella. Where better to begin than birth itself, if you want to be completist! I've read the longer version of this on the forums and it makes an intriguing and unusual (for theBransforums) piece of hard SF.

I like Nathan's incorporated changes more than he does himself, judging by his 2:29 PM comment! But you should of course adapt them to your own style, as he suggests.

'I waited, impatient to be born.' Great sentence!

D.G. Hudson said...

Amazing what an experienced editor can do with a few well chosen words. Thanks for the lesson for all of us, Nathan.

This story has promise, and now that Nathan has critiqued it, Petronella, keep working at it. Good luck with your writing.

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Nathan. Much easier to read.

This issue of whether your audience is American or British or from some other English-reading country -- if you're submitting to an American agent like this, expect that you're going to be critiqued as if this was to be considered for an American publisher.

Otherwise, look for your critique from a British agent. They do put out different versions for the UK vs US market.

Gerri said...

Nathan, would you have reacted the same to the phrase "at the same moment"?

Verification: misfull


Anonymous said...

uh, what about the typo in the last sentence? "the the" When you didn't correct it even in your rewrite, I started to feel like I was imagining that it was a typo. I'm not, right?
That being said, I thought the original was good and so is Nathan's polish, but would really like to see something between the two. Nathan's, having removed the extra phrasing, made the time seem quick when I think the point was that it was a languid, frolicking time for the narrator

Mira said...

First of all, I love the cool weather. It's lovely. This is what San Francisco should be! Foggy.

So, first, overstuffed sentences. That's a great term. You coin great terms for writing, Nathan. Fortunately, I never, ever, ever overstuff my sentences. But it's an interesting intellectual exercise to consider.

So, in terms of the critique, I agree with Nathan on this - excellent review, as always! You are so talented, Nathan.

An idea this big (and cool!) needs precise writing because the concept is alien to the reader. Sci Fi is really tricky. You are introducing the reader to not only a new world, but a new way of thought and being. If the reader has to stop every few seconds to try to figure it out, their trance is broken, and you'll probably lose them.

I definitely think the voice here is good, almost dreamlike, but the writing needs to be precise and smooth first.

Also, there is alot happening in just three paragraphs. The author might consider slowing down abit. You could let the reader feel the lanquid exploration of knowledge along with the MC. That's up to the author, though, just a suggestion.

Okay, lastly, and importantly, this is a wonderful idea! Petronella, you have a terrific imagination. This is a case where the story is there, and the craft maybe just needs to catch up alittle.

I hope to see you on the Sci Fi bookshelf someday with your wonderful, imaginative stories. :)

Melissa Pearl said...

Nathan - great critique. I'm finding your Monday page critique SOOOO helpful. I suffer from sentence overstuffing and I really liked seeing how you made the work more precise.

Petronella - awesome way to begin a story. Could totally visualize this floating person slowly coming to life. Well done.

Kate said...

Yeah. Overstuffed sentences. That's what I was going to say...

Awesome critique. Spot on, as usual. I really look forward to these as well and I'm learning a lot about my own writing in the process. So thanks to Nathan and all the brave participants!

Kay Richardson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kay Richardson said...

Nathan, I want to have your babies. And I'm not even a woman. I'd find a way, though. This is good stuff.

Claire Dawn said...

I really like this premise! Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I thought 'rainbow of colours' and 'sounds in a range of tones' was really good... a beautiful use of language.Usually I agree with what you say Nathan, because you are so normally correct. But, I agree with Jil- there is a difference between an english person's and american person's writing. I'm english, so I liked those phrases. Maybe it's all a matter of where you are

Sheila Cull said...

I learn so much from your Page Critique Monday, yeah. My one brain thanks you.

Timothy Fish said...

In this whole page, there seems to be no conflict. Also, it has been stated that this has an interesting premise, but we don't really have a premise yet. What's our premise? That six brains are better than one? That six brains are worse than one? Until we make some kind of claim we don't have a premise.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't think I'm objecting to this: "Into my dark, silent world came light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones" because I'm American or that I don't like the phrase "sounds in a range of tones" (though I feel it's a bit unwieldy), I suggested deleting that last part because it's redundant.

Rainbow isn't meant literally here - it's meant to be a spectrum, and in that usage it can be used to mean more than just color. So in the context here both rainbow and "range" of sound mean the same thing. It's redundant to say "rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones" when you can just say "a rainbow of colours and sounds."

ryan field said...

I enjoyed reading the incorporated changes. The author's intention and words still remain, but it's tighter and cleaner.

KeithTax said...

My single brain had a hard time wrapping itself around this story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the writer and Nathan. This is such a valuable exercise. How to take a fabulous idea and polish the writing. An extra set of eyes with expertise is magic!

Adele Richards said...

I thought the re-write was great.

Oh a totally unrelated note, Nathan, how are sales of 'Rock Paper,Tiger' going?

wlmyers said...

I liked the concept and I'm curious where it's going. It's hard to argue with the comments about the overstuffed sentences, but what got me was the repetition. In two consecutive sentences, you used the word "vast". Then you did the same thing with the word "volitional".

Unless you have a good reason, I think it's best to use different words to describe things. It stands out, especially when you use uncommon words.

You definitely have me interested in the premise. Doing some cutting will bring that to the forefront.

Anonymous said...

I had to read each sentence of this excerpt at least three or four times - not because the sentences were complex, or because they contained brilliant ideas, but because they didn't make any sense to me.

Maybe I just don't 'get' this writer.

But while reading this excerpt, something else occurred to me.

There was a discussion at this forum a while back about literary fiction - how does one define what's literary and what's not?

When I read E.M. Forster, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald, or James Joyce (surely we can agree that these are all 'literary writers'), I find myself re-reading the sentences and paragraphs sometimes as many as three or four times.

When I'm reading 'The Secret Sharer', by Joseph Conrad, for example, I'll happily re-read the same sentence or paragraph multiple times even though I've read this story ten times already.

How can one resist a sentence such as this: "... and all around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky."

You just have to read that sentence twice!

(And by the way, that sentence sounds so great because it's a list. It's a list of negations. There are five of them there. But Conrad, a brilliant writer, elevates himself from the pack by dividing the list into verbs and nouns. "Nothing moved... nothing lived..." That's a verb list. "... not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky." That's a noun list. He's created a list of five negations, but he's done it with two verbs, and three nouns. That is simply amazing. Here, I believe, Conrad has an advantage, in that English was his fourth language. He had to study the language, rather than learn it through osmosis. I also have a working theory that those who are slightly dyslexic have an advantage over others, for the same reason.)

Literary fiction does that to you. It makes you want to stop and ponder the sentence structure, or think about the ideas being presented. Literature will make you think about things, so that often times you'll have to go back and re-read previous pages, having realized that you weren't reading at all, but rather were thinking about things suggested by the prose.

When I read John Grisham, or Dan Brown, on the other hand, I almost never stop to re-read the sentences. I just plow through. The writing itself makes me want to read faster, and sometimes I'll even jump ahead to the next paragraph without finishing the one I'm presently reading.

So is it perhaps fair to say that this is how one could potentially judge what's literary and what's not?

I think that it's a partial explanation at least.

Jesus. Where do I get these ideas from? God I must be some kind of a literary genius or something!

Petronella said...

Nathan, thank you for your comments and for the red lines. I've never heard of overstuffed sentences before this. Your rewrite is nice and clean, but it's not how my MC speaks and thinks. I understand I can use your version as a framework to add onto.

Jil, I was born in the Netherlands a long long time ago. Moved to Canada in '54 and have lived there ever since.

Livi Wells said...

I am interested in what happens next even with the difficulties in the sentence structure. Although I think that if the whole book was written like that I would just get tired of rereading things and put it down. I don't think that Nathan was trying to strip the descriptions down,he was just making the sequence of events easier to follow. And yes it wasn't as breathtaking as before. I agree that you wrote some beautiful descriptions but you should use them with more clarity. I am guilty of doing the same thing myself and I think it does have to do with English being my second language-it doesn't matter that I speak it fluently, it's how the sentences are formed in the 'Brain'.

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