Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Page Critique Thursday: My Thoughts, and More About Trusting Yourself

I'm back with my thoughts on the page posted earlier in the day.

One of the most important skills every writer must master is also one of the most elusive: trusting their own talent.

It sounds so easy! But lo, there are many threats to the ego lurking throughout the writing process, and it is easy to start doubting oneself, not to mention when one hears repeatedly about the necessity of grabbing the attention of a possibly distracted reader/agent. And perhaps the biggest symptom of writerly self-mistrust is trying just a bit too hard.

I think there's a whole lot to like about this page - there's good description and the beginnings of a good flow, but there are parts that just feel like they're just a tad over the top and seem a like an attempt to leap out and shake the reader by the shoulders. To me, the opening tries to cram the plot into a pithy two-liner,  and there are touches that feel writerly and sound okay on the surface, but don't quite bear scrutiny.

So, for instance, it sounds okay to say that someone stood for what could have been five minutes or five hours. But does that really make sense? Would someone really not know whether it was five minutes or five hours barring some sort of unconsciousness situation?

And it sounds okay for someone that someone "barely notices" some very specific detail and it carries a feeling of a certain aloofness. But can really you "barely" notice something very specific? Aren't you, well, just plain noticing?

This author can definitely write! All that's needed is stripping away the accoutrement, and this page really sings.

Author's page (with my subtractions/comments highlighted in red):

Being murdered once was bad enough. Three times in a row was pushing on the ridiculous. While I know some like this type of opening, it didn't quite work for me. The "annoyed at getting murdered yet again" sentiment feels forced.

Standing at the end of a long corridor, Nafrini just stood and stared at the massive wooden double doors, nearly ten feet in height and inscribed with glyphs. The path, or rather river, Is it a path or is it a river? to the “afterlife” why is this in quotes? lay on the other side. She just stood there and glared at the doors already said she's staring at the doors, listening to nothing but the drip… drip… drip… of water leaking from the fabric of her clothes and the strands of her hair. She might have been there for what could have been five minutes or five hours she really can't tell if it was five minutes or five hours? before reaching out to the gold inlaid handle and jerked the wide, massive door aside.

That’s it! I havehad it!  The sound of her stomps across the warm colored polished stone floor might have had a sense of purpose to it, had it not been for the apparent not sure "apparent" is needed squish that came with each step. She passed through was she had termed “the waiting room, barely noticing how does one barely notice? that the men and women lounging in comfort seemed to have halted their conversations at her arrival. As her anger peaked, whether at their reluctance to greet her or by the situation in general this explanation feels awkward to me and non-specific. What exactly is the "situation in general?, she pulled her heavy over-shirt over repetition of "over" a tad awkward her head and threw it to the ground, which landed with a satisfying SPLAT! not sure the capitalization/italicization is necessary Without a backwards glance in the others’ direction, she passed through to the entrance to the river of the dead. It would take her to those think "the ones" would read better who would choose her fate.

 My suggested result:


Standing at the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stood and stared at the massive wooden double doors, nearly ten feet in height and inscribed with glyphs. The river to the afterlife lay on the other side. She listened to nothing but the drip… drip… drip… of water leaking from the fabric of her clothes and the strands of her hair. She reached out to the gold inlaid handle and jerked the wide, massive door aside.

The sound of her stomps across the warm colored polished stone floor might have had a sense of purpose had it not been for the wet squish that came with each step. She passed through the waiting room, noting that the men and women lounging in comfort had halted their conversations at her arrival. As her anger peaked, she pulled off her heavy over-shirt and threw it to the ground, which landed with a satisfying splat. Without a backwards glance she passed through to the entrance to the river of the dead. It would take her to the ones who would choose her fate.

My end result still feels a little distant from this characters' perspective, some more flavor probably needs to be woven back in, and I think we can have more natural insight into what she's feeling. But without the extra touches, the focus is much more on the scene itself, which has a sense of mystery and purpose.

This author can definitely write! The scene is interesting of its own accord without the extra touches. Sometimes it's best to place your trust in yourself and your reader and just let the scene unfold.






35 comments:

Barbara Kloss said...

Nathan--I'm so glad you did this. I learned a lot, watching you edit (the crosses and red). It never ceases to amaze me how slight the tweaks may seem, yet the difference is tenfold!.

It's also a tough lesson to learn--fearlessness with your writing style. The more I write, the more I realize how difficult it is to make something sound so fluid and easy. Especially when I take a step back and read it out loud to myself. I'm often horrified!

Thanks again for doing this--and thanks to the volunteer for sharing! It was a great lesson

Kevin said...

Beautiful! This story does indeed sing...the power of the author's idea comes through with more ease. Great first page!

And thanks for doing these regular critiques...blessed are you among blogs, Mr. Bransford.

Kevin said...

*Blessed are you among blog authors, I meant to say. Sorry, didn't mean to call you a blog, Nathan.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

Excellent comments Nathan and very well re-worded.
Just this one sentence that seems off-key. 'As her anger peaked, she pulled off her heavy over-shirt and threw it to the ground, which landed with a satisfying splat.'
Perhaps: where it landed with satisfying splat will read a little easier.

Krista V. said...

Oh, Nathan. This is why we all still wish you were an agent:) (But we're happy for you where you're at.)

Learning to trust your own talent is one of the hardest things about this business. But thank you for the pep talk - and for sharing your editorial insights on this first page.

P.S. On a completely unrelated note, I hope you're still planning to do another March Madness contest this year. And I hope the prize is a preorder of JACOB WONDERBAR:)

Chuck H. said...

And you make this editing thingy look so easy. If only I could do that to my stuff. Oh well, thanks for all you do, Mr. Brandsford.

WV: poeterre -- earthling poet??

Michael G-G said...

Nice line-editing, Nathan.

I would like to point out something of which I am also guilty: the overabundance of "just." (e.g. Nafrini just stood...) It's gotten so bad that I now use find/replace when going through my draft to get rid of the pesky little buggers.

Perhaps we have "Just do it!" burned too deeply in our brains?

This sounds like an interesting story. I wish the author success with it.

Michael
http://theyearofwritingdangerously.blogspot.com

Michael Offutt said...

This just showcases that a good editor behind someone that has good writing can produce a great manuscript.

Mira said...

Love your reviews, Nathan. I don't know how you do it - you pick out the theme so accurately! And your redlines are an excellent learning tool for me personally, since I tend toward the wordly. I love how you tighten everything up.

I rarely disagree with you (actually, in these critiques, I've never disagreed with you) but I really, really, really love that first line. I'd forgive alot for that first line, which would keep me reading no matter what followed for quite awhile. It sets up the mystery and the hook.

But I've said before that I believe a 'grabber' opening like that works best with commercial readers, while literary readers prefer the slow opening. And I'm commercial all the way. So, that's probably why we disagree, Nathan.

All of that said, this is a great critique - thank you - and a compelling story set up. I'm interested and want to read more!

Subcreator said...

I'd say the opening sentence is still repetitive.

"Standing at the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stood and stared at the massive wooden double doors..."

Standing and then stood. Both are not necessary. I'd chop off the "stood and" and just leave "Nafrini stared".

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the brave author of this opening and to Nathan.

I liked this piece and I really appreciate Nathan's edit suggestions. They make the passage cleaner.

I also liked the first line. I would have had a problem deleting that.

It can be hard on any writer when they get attached to a certain line, which takes me to the other side of your great topic about Trusting Yourself.

Sometimes you have to just stick to your guns about what or how you want to write it down.

Too often, in open critiques, people want to just rewrite a writer's sentences.

So I find it more valuable to focus on: how do you clarify a passage as opposed to how would I (or whoever) say it.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Little cuts and tweaks can make a surprising amount of difference in impact. Great demonstration of that, Nathan.

Jenny said...

Awesomeness! I think that your suggestions are right on, Nathan--and, dear author, I share your tendency with the "justs". It's my favorite sin-word. I do automatic word finds for it just (hee) so I can get rid of them.

@Mira, I agree with you that the first line is very interesting...but I don't know about the way it's phrased. I definitely want to know the "third murder" part early, early, early because it's an interesting hook but I agree with Nathan's assessment that it feels forced as-is. Perhaps there's a way to reword it?

Ruth Harris said...

I'm a long-time editor & NYTimes bestselling author. Here's my go:

I liked the grabby first sentence! I would made additional cuts, though.

"The sound of her stomps across the warm colored polished stone floor." What are "her stomps?" Do you mean "her steps?" And what exact sound is the author referring to?

Also "warm colored polished stone floor" -- warm colored...either needs a hyphen or a word describing the color--caramel? Taupe? Grey?--or, even better, just "polished stone floor"

"As her anger peaked, she pulled off her heavy over-shirt and threw it to the ground, which landed with a satisfying splat." Delete the final phrase from "which landed...thru...satisfying splat." Adds nothing; is just distracting.

Cut, cut, cut is always my advice to myself...it's amazing how cutting can strengthen a scene. What you don't say matters just as much as what you do say. It's knowing the difference that's the trick...

Anyway, this is a fun and illuminating exercise & shows how many different ways there are to approach a scene.

Thanks so much for a fascinating post.

TERI REES WANG said...

I do appreciate the teaching, of pointing out in visual. It feels like a reverse Mad Lib game.

Cheers!

Patty Blount said...

Hmmm. I kind of liked the opening sentence. It explains why she's so mad!

The Storylady said...

I'm afraid I vote for keeping the opening two lines too. It sets up the whole premise and question: murdered three times? She's been here before? It tells us why she's angry, and why she stomps. I like the squishing feet and splat of her shirt on the ground - it adds a bit of humor. I smiled when I read it. (However, the way it's written, it sounds like the ground made the "splat" and not the shirt.)

Iliadfan said...

Have to agree with Mira et al - LOVED that first line, and I'd definitely keep reading. I though the "afterlife" in quotes was funny - perhaps emphasizing that death wasn't nearly as permanent as one would expect. And "5 minutes or 5 hours" I took to mean timelessness - kind of like the Elysian fields or any number of mystical places where time doesn't pass the same way.

I get that there were issues, but I really liked this beginning. Good luck to the author!

eeleenlee said...

Great demonstration!

Although the process of stripping away seems very alarming to beginner writers, it is necessary to allow the story to emerge.

karenlee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Standing at the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stood and stared at the massive wooden double doors, nearly ten feet in height and inscribed with glyphs."

I'm curious. How many times do we have to be reminded Nafrini is standing? Wouldn't it be smoother to write:

"At the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stood and stared at massive wooden double doors, nearly ten feet high, inscribed with glyphs."

Anna said...

It's so satisfying to read critiques of works that are almost there. Good luck, anonymous author! I hope we get to read the full thing soon.

Diana said...

I respectfully disagree with the removal of the first line. I get that some people don't like the first line, but removing it as you have done here, removed the underlying emotion of the first paragraph.

Without it, there's no sense of emotion for the character. She stands and stares at the door. Is it with anger? wonder? awe? trepidation? sadness? Without that first sentence, it could be any one of those things. With the first sentence, the reader knows she's aggravated. And that brings me into the story.

Candyland said...

This is genius. I love to see a story come together with a few deletions.

ARJules said...

Hello all!
I just wanted to thank everyone for their comments. I really do appreciate everything you guys said and will take it to heart to make my story better. (Although I still like my first line. :)

And Nathan, thank you so much for selecting my page to critique. Your suggestions really tightened up these paragraphs. I'm sure will help me as I continue forward as well.

Nathan Bransford said...

ARJules-

Thanks again for volunteering! I definitely understand and respect people's opinions diverging opinion on the first line. Part of that is definitely subjective, and part I think I'll expand on in a post next week.

Maya said...

Even though I didn't agree with each redline, overall I felt the rewritten version was much cleaner. The overall theme about writerly self-confidence was an interesting take on it.

And hats off to the author for such a thoroughly intriguing opening!

I personally did like the first line, but I tend to go for grabby openings when I read.

Hillsy said...

First up: Congrats and nice work ARJules!!!!!

And this is why having professionals critiquing work in a public forum is brilliant and important.

I honestly think in so many aspects of writing confidence is absolutely key. Getting the balance between confidence and doubt is both vital and so very tough to do. Trying too hard is one of only many, many issues affected by this. I personally tend to both show and tell when I’m writing, or describe things twice, just to make sure I’ve got the point across.

Querying needs this as well. At the end of the day everyone has an opinion and Agents openly admit what they feel doesn’t work for them might work for another agent. So ultimately it comes down to trusting its good enough for a percentage of Agents. But even then you’ve got to doubt the quality enough to allow you to polish it in the first place.

Editing is fraught with doubt. I suffer massively from this. I can literally sit for an hours moving words round in a sentence, trying to work out the best way to place them. It’s not that only one way is “good”, it’s that only one way is “perfect”. Chasing perfection while ignoring something that’s 97.5% pure is madness and completely unhelpful. Doubt will tell you that something is wrong, Confidence will let you make an improvement and move on.

I mean I could go on about this for hours, but I don’t think I’ll be able to adequately convey all the points I want to make…..Whoops! There’s that confidence thing again.

Word verification - Pulap: Burlap made out of puppies

Anonymous said...

"Being murdered once was bad enough. Three times in a row was pushing on the ridiculous."

I see a lot of this getting thumbs up over at Miss Snark's First Victim. I happen to dislike stories that start this way too

Standing and stood in the same sentence? Really?

I think it reads better: At the end of a long corridor, Nafrini just stood and stared at the massive double doors, nearly ten feet in height and inscribed with glyphs.


I also took at an adjective. I personally think three in a row makes the sentence too heavy.

Amy Tripp said...

Great stuff, Nathan. Thanks!!

Standing at the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stood and stared at the massive wooden double doors, nearly ten feet in height and inscribed with glyphs.

On the first read, I thought 'standing' was referring to Nafrini - so I thought 'stood' was redundant. Then I realized 'standing' was referring to the door. If it was my writing, I'd tweak that first sentence even more.
Amy

Joseph L. Selby said...

But can really you "barely" notice something very specific? Aren't you, well, just plain noticing?

Yes, one can barely notice something specific. You're using barely as "scarcely," a matter of degree. The author is using barely as "almost missed," meaning the character was moving on in his observation and noticed the something specific at the last moment.

Suzann Ellingsworth said...

How about keeping the show and losing the tell/passive, i.e., using the character's POV to active purpose and forgoing unnecessary adjectives:

From the end of a long corridor, Nafrini stared at the towering, wooden double-doors inscribed with glyphs. Beyond them lay the river to the afterlife.
Drip… drip… drip…water leaked from her clothes and strands of her hair. She jerked the door's gold inlaid handle.
Stomping across the polished stone floor might have telegraphed a sense of purpose, if not for each step's wet squish. Men and women lounging in comfort halted their conversations.
Nafrini stripped off her heavy overshirt; it hit the ground with a satisfying splat. She paused, beholding the entrance to the river of the dead. Those who would choose her fate were waiting.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

My final thoughts: tidying and editing something that has already been written is not nearly as difficult as writing it in the first place. I do believe that this is a very helpful exercise but I would ultimately like to tip my hat at the writer who put him or herself out here. It can't be easy, however constructive and polite and helpful the comments are. I, for one, equate writing a book to raising a child. You invest tons of your time and energy and love in something that starts out as tiny little seed. You delight in all of its achievements, however big, however small and insignificant. And then one day when it's all grown-up, you dress and polish it and proudly send it out into the world only to have a complete stranger tell you that you did a mediocre job (at best) or, in the case of many aspiring authors, that your hard work was a complete waste of time (obviously not in this case but in many others). Don't give up and, again, well done.

Anonymous said...

Keep the first sentence, it helps orientate me as to what is going on, and makes everything after it far more interesting. With it I want to keep reading. Without it it's the same old same old.

Greg Gountanis said...

Learned a lot from the edits. The old adage, almost always rings true: "Less is more." Thanks for the post.

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