Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Page Critique Tuesday: My Thoughts

Back with my thoughts on the page posted earlier, and I have to say:

This page is in quite good shape! And that's because it is effective at one of the best ways of building suspense: provoking questions.

Suspense is all about withholding information. Mystery at its core is about not knowing something you want to know. But too often when people try and build suspense, they do it by holding out on the reader. The characters may know the history of a situation, but the conveniently don't fill in the reader. The characters have a good sense of what could be happening in a given situation, but they conveniently don't think about those things.

Especially in first person and third person limited, unless you're dealing with an unreliable narrator, the reader should really know what the character knows.

In this case: we do know everything the (third person limited) protagonist knows! And it's suspenseful because she doesn't know exactly what's happening.

The suspense is built through images that beg questions: why does this young man look old? Why is he wearing a heavy coat in July? Why is one hand jittering while the other is still? Then there are some obstacles in the way that build further tension: a distracting patron and a bad layout to the library. It all builds steadily, one thing leading to the next, and I think it's quite effective.

Just about the only main thing I would suggest actually has to do with the first line. While I really like the details throughout this page, the first line feels a bit detached to me. It's a bit too much telling (caught her attention) rather than showing her attention being caught through action (Judith looked up/stopped what she was doing/dropped something), and it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to show Judith's personality.

But still, a very solid start, and I think this page has promise. Nice work!

Title: The Pigeon Drop
Genre: Mystery

The young man caught Judith's attention the moment he entered the library. show this

It wasn't just the way his gaze skittered away from hers, never landing on anything for more than a split second, or the way he huddled inside his long black duster, which was far too heavy for July. That described most of the high school students who schlepped in every afternoon to hang around the manga. Nice kids, most of them.

But this young man was older, with dry, mumbling lips in a jaundiced face. And while his left hand clenched and jittered not sure about using both "skittered" and "jittered" so close to one another at his side, his right stayed in his coat pocket, steady as a rock.

It could be his favorite crack pipe. But Judith didn’t think so.

Unfortunately, she was trapped by a patron who wasn't going to stop asking the same question until she received the exact answer she wanted. Judith watched the young man with peripheral vision until he disappeared into the mysteries.

Judith frowned. The original layout of this floor--perfectly acceptable a century ago, when most behavior problems could be controlled with a glare and a finger to one's lips like this detail—was a security nightmare unrelieved by the single camera aimed at the cash register at the circulation desk. But adding more cameras cost money, and any reorganization of the massive mahogany bookcases would have to wait until the carpet was finally replaced. The Board was reluctant to authorize either "without real reason."

Judith hoped the young man wouldn't provide one.


Kate said...

Yup and yup. Loved it. Would definitely keep reading. Props!

Anonymous said...

Wow, looks like this one is the leader in least amount of corrections needed. Good job.

Cheryl said...

I love that you have such little red! I can only hope I can get mine like that. :) My only issue is with her name being repeated so much. I felt like I kept stepping back out of the POV when it was used. I'm not sure why because obviously the name is going to get used.

A Tale of Many Reviews said...

Thanks for posting. Very informative and I like seeing you opinion and whys.

Laurel said...

SOLID! I'm very intrigued by the mystery man and this made me giggle:

she was trapped by a patron who wasn't going to stop asking the same question until she received the exact answer she wanted.

Cat Moleski said...

Wow, that was well done. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Duluk said...

Interesting start. I do have a question though.

How does Judith know that the right hand in the coat pocket is "steady as a rock?"

Sarah W said...

Thank you so much for your critique, Nathan, and for the opportunity for so much honest feedback.

You've all made my week, if not longer.

And Duluk, you have me there. My MC has peripheral vision, not x-ray. I'll have to reassess the blocking. Drat. And thank you.

Mira said...

Nathan, you are very talented. I have vague impressions upon reading these pieces, and I'm continually impressed with how you highlight something and bring it out clear and defined. Very, very talented.

So, naturally, I agree with what Nathan said, Sarah. I felt you did a really good job at raising my curiousity about what this guy was doing in the library. I think he was up to no good!

I will mention there was one line that broke the reader trance for me - the crack pipe line. I liked that you showed Judith had a sense of humor, but the image of a crack pipe seemed a bit intense for a joke, at least until we know the novel is gritty. Also, why a crack pipe? Does he look like he uses crack? Who would bring a crack pipe into a library - where did she get the association from? And why, then, if she thought of a crack pipe, did she then doubt he had it in his pocket? So many questions about the crack pipe! :)

But that's the only quibble I had. I thought it read smoothly and flowed well. I thought the library and funding issues were completely belivable. And I still want to find out what that guy was up to! Some nefarious doings methinks.

Good job - thanks so much to both you and Nathan.

Nathan, thanks for bringing these back! Yay! :)

Ted Fox said...

This felt like I was reading the beginning of an already published book. And I always love a well-placed pop culture reference, so I was a big fan of the manga line. :)

R.D. Allen said...

I agree with you that this page is very strong. It makes me actually want to pay attention to mysteries. x)

This makes me wonder, since you're not an agent anymore, how does someone go about getting their page submitted for critique? :/ I remember when you started this, but I don't recall you saying how to submit a piece...

Anonymous said...

Hey Sarah W,

I agree with Nathan on the slow building of tension...a difficult thing for a newbie to master and I think you're right on.

I got the hand in the pocket. It could be seen moving beneath the fabric, if it were.

Gotta disagree about the opening sentence. Pulled me right in. It seems to me like a genre convention. I read a lot of mysteries and there's often a detached/reporterly (is that a word?) style to the opening. It gets to the point. Whatever the reason, I liked it. ;)


Anonymous said...

That wasn't to imply that Nathan is ignorant of mystery genre conventions. Duh. Sorry 'bout that, Nathan.

My point was that the opening sentence seemed natural to me and pulled me in. And that this impression is coming from s'one who reads mostly mysteries (of differing subgenres.)

Also, I'm writing in the genre and having a heckuva time with my opening, so I've spent some time poring over openings of my very favorite novels and so thought my opinion might be worth almost as much time as it takes to read it.

Good luck, Sarah. NickB

Mflick1 said...

Nice edit, good luck to the author. Great input!

Chemist Ken said...

Nathan, could you suggest how that first sentence could be shown instead of told? I'm a beginning writer and didn't recognize that that sentence was telling.

Sheila Cull said...

Sarah W! Congratulations!

That's the least amount of red ink that I for one, at least, have seen Nathan use.


Other Lisa said...

Oh, wow. This is great. I'm a HUGE mystery reader, and I would totally read this.

John Jack said...

Nice emerging menace scene, expectation of danger, implying and introducing a villain right away.

That first sentence is a summary recitation of the narrator's observation of Judith's action. A small bit from an outside place away from Judith's immediate time and place.

Showing instead would just describe a sensory observation or thought Judith immediately experiences upon noticing the man. Something generally attention grabbing about him that draws her focus toward him.

Another thing about the sentence, "The young man caught," "caught" is the culprit there. Judith is the actor of the sentence action, but the man is in subject position catching her attention.

Catching attention? Good that the man is in subject position to introduce Judith as the observing character, though "caught" emphasizes the narrator observing the man being observed by Judith. Note, the man being observed by Judith, a passive voice construction. Does he deliberately catch her attention? Probably not. Thus revealing the sentence as a passive voice construction, though artfully disguised.

"Gaze skittered"? Skittered is a bit of an awkward word choice. I visualize a stone twitching as it skips and slides down an incline. A gaze might jerkily slip away from direct eye contact, but skittered gives an impression of playfulness.

"It could be," artfully implies the man has something in his hand. "It" doesn't connect to an antecedent subject though, making what "it" is a little vague from referring to the suspected subsequent noun subject the crack pipe.

"But," blunts the impact of Judith not thinking so.

Strong opening scene, with a few minor diction awkwardnesses that I wouldn't associate with a competent librarian.

The strongest quality is the menace artfully posed and its full revelation artfully delayed, countered by an otherwise routine nuisance taking precedence over safety and intuition about a possible danger. True to life in that Judith suspects all is not right, but not so not right that she takes instant corrective action. Exquisite artful juxtaposition.

Sarah W said...

Mr. Jack, I don't know whether you believe this excerpt to show intelligent incompetence or incompetent intelligence, but whichever it is, you said it beautifully.

Thank you.

John Jack said...

Ms. Sarah W., you're welcome.

I think the excerpt shows a good grasp of some of the more advanced creative writing methods.

I see neither intelligent incompetence nor incompetent intelligence, but rather a mostly developed talent for drama and reaching a little for just the right word, diction, and syntax--dialect--for Judith's voice.

Related Posts with Thumbnails