Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Page Critique Thursday: Avoiding Being Writerly

Here's how these critique bobamathingies work. If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique Event, please enter it in this thread in the Forums.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline.

As you offer your thoughts, please be exceedingly polite and remember the sandwich rule: positive, constructive polite advice, positive.

Random numbers were generated, and congrats to Maureen Anne, whose page is below:
The Witch's Inn
Contemporary Fiction

Prologue

The telephone rang, awakening me from a deep Valium-induced stupor. A disembodied voice said, ‘the Inn’s on fire’, and then the line went dead. The clock read 3:00 - the witching hour. I grabbed my dog. Still wearing pyjamas and slippers I jumped into my red Cherokee Jeep, and drove to The Witch’s Inn.

Dense smoke rose like a mushroom cloud, leaving the Inn and the throng of spectators lost in its residue. I was attempting to hurl myself onto the roof of my Jeep when a gentle push as if from the hand of an angel propelled me upwards and set me at my destination.

Levitation - it was the only possible explanation.

Flames leapt around the remains of The Witch’s Inn, smoke billowed from heat-shattered windows and smouldering embers littered the landscape. It was the most ruinous scene I had ever had the misfortune to witness.

My eyes smarted, my nose twitched and taste buds withered on my tongue - Camelot extinguished.

As if a director had called ‘lights, camera, action’ a police officer came into view and blew hard into his silver-lipped whistle.

“Move back, move back! Stay behind the tape!”

Fire fighters carried out human and animal forms; some lay on stretchers, some hung like rag-dolls from the arms of their saviours. Others were zipped into shiny black body bags.

Let me start by saying I definitely think this author can write. There's some evocative description here, and I particularly liked the line "hung like rag-dolls from the arms of their saviours" (and you have to admit, the Anglican spelling adds a little something extra).  I'm intrigued by the premise, especially by the way the levitation fits in. I think with some adjustments this page will really sing.

Now, allow me sidetrack a bit to digress about between "writing" and "being writerly."

Writers describe. They illuminate and clarify. When you're writing you're painting the proverbial picture in the proverbial reader's head.

When you're being writerly, your writing is making things less clear with clever word play.

I worry a bit that there are elements of description here that fall into the latter category and took me out of the scene ("as if by the hand of an angel," the comparison to the director shouting lights camera action). I'm just not sure these elements are adding more than what the scene accomplishes without them.

Whenever you're unsure about including a metaphor or an evocative description, ask yourself: Does this make the scene clearer? Or am I including it because it's clever/original/was fun to write?

Different writers have different tastes, but count me down in camp clarity.

Lastly, this page includes two very common openings: waking up and a fire. Not saying that can't work, but be aware that those are common. Lastly lastly, is this contemporary fiction? Because levitation tends to equal fantasy of some kind.

Still, like I said, I think the author can write and has a way with words. I just think this could be readjusted with clarity in mind. Here's the redline.

The Witch's Inn
Contemporary Fiction

Prologue

The telephone rang, awakening me from a deep Valium-induced stupor. A disembodied if it's coming through the telephone we know it's disembodied voice said, ‘the Inn’s on fire’, and then the line went dead. The clock read 3:00 - the witching hour not sure this is necessary. Shorter sentences build tension here. I grabbed my dog. Still wearing pyjamas and slippers I jumped into my red Cherokee Jeep, and drove to The Witch’s Inn.
The tension in the scene can be increased with just those small changes. The raw material is here in this page. Here's that paragraph with those changes incorporated.
The telephone rang, awakening me from a deep Valium-induced stupor. A voice said, 'The Inn's on fire,' and then the line went dead. The clock read 3:00. I grabbed my dog. Still wearing pyjamas and slippers I jumped into my red Cherokee Jeep and drove to The Witch's Inn.
 On to the rest of the page:
Dense smoke rose like a mushroom cloud, leaving the Inn and the throng of spectators lost in its residue I'm not sure if "its" here refers to the smoke or the Inn, but either way I'm confused how either smoke or the Inn is leaving spectators in its residue. I was attempting to hurl myself onto the roof of my Jeep when a gentle push as if from the hand of an angel propelled me upwards and set me at my destination. This is intriguing, but why exactly was she trying to get on the roof of her car?

Levitation - it was the only possible explanation. There was something about this line that didn't quite work for me. The protagonist doesn't seem surprised, and yet also doesn't seem sure it's levitation. If the protagonist doesn't know this is possible I think they would be completely shocked. If they know levitation is possible, why don't they know for sure that's what just happened? Either way I think the reaction may need to be clearer.

Flames leapt around the remains of The Witch’s Inn, smoke billowed from heat-shattered windows and smouldering embers littered the landscape. It was the most ruinous scene I had ever had the misfortune to witness This feels a little nonspecific. What is being lost? Why is this so ruinous and sad? Show this.

My eyes smarted, my nose twitched and taste buds withered on my tongue - Camelot extinguished Why is this place compared to Camelot? The protagonist knows and it's first person, so the reader should know too..

As if a director had called ‘lights, camera, action’ a police officer came into view and blew hard into his silver-lipped whistle.

“Move back, move back! Stay behind the tape!”

Fire fighters carried out human and animal forms; some lay on stretchers, some hung like rag-dolls from the arms of their saviours. Others were zipped into shiny black body bags. I think this paragraph is spot on.
Thanks so much to Maureen Anne for offering her page!






35 comments:

Ranae Rose said...

I agree, the last paragraph was great. :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

I want to mention the designation of 3:00 as the witching hour. Common use in some places (where I live being one of them) is midnight, not 3:00am, so it's not a constant. It threw me out of the story.

Skipetty said...

I always enjoy reading these pages and the marvellous (I think) critiques, but sometimes I wonder whether by considering just the first page, some things might be lost.

For instance here, with the mention of levitation and the witching hour being 3am, not midnight - could these be perhaps foreshadows of what is to come - maybe witches that have an important 3am spell start, maybe a protagonist that has levitated before - all things that we will understand more clearly later and then go, ah, THAT'S what that was all about.

If that was the author's intention - then would it still be better to leave them out?

abc said...

I agree with Nathan that it is clear the writer can write, but I also agree that there is too much writiness. I made that word up just now. It's like truthiness. It feels to me a bit like showing off and it doesn't pull me in, but rather keeps me at a distance.

I also feel like things are moving too fast here. As a reader I couldn't get my bearings.

But levitation is cool and interesting and I think, too, that there seems to be a compelling story here.

Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files) said...

This was a compelling scene. I agree with all of Nathan's redlines but would also add the following:

1. If you follow his advice about cutting "as if from the hand of an angel" I would then also change the description "gentle push" to something else. Otherwise as a reader I'm making the assumption it's someone in the throng of spectators that has given the gentle push to the narrator, and then the levitation line would really throw me.

2. I would also cut "silver-lipped" in describing the whistle. It feels like unnecessary description (the first color I think of whistles being is silver). I was distracted by imagining why only the lip of the whistle is silver and not the whole thing.

3. What happened to the dog? In the opening the narrator mentions grabbing the dog when they leave. In the midst of the activity I kept wondering what her dog was doing. Is he barking behind the rolled up windows? Huddled on the floor of the back seat because he's a nervous dog? Whining? I'd like just a short note of description to keep the dog in the scene since he was mentioned in the opening.

4. There was a bit of a jump for me from the description of the smoke rising from the inn to the narrator trying to climb on top of the jeep. Because we open with her leaving her house, I'm imagining her still in her Jeep arriving at the inn when she sees the smoke/spectators. So to have her trying to get on top her Jeep in the next sentence made me stop and reorient myself in the scene.

5. Cut "red" in the first paragraph, unless the color of the car ends up being important later in this scene.

I would have definitely kept reading. The levitation assumption and witch references have me curious to see where this is going.

Rick Daley said...

I agree that this is a sample from a good writer. It has style and voice, although I also agree that it has style in excess.

I'm not clear on the top-of-the-jeep passage. Is it to get a better view? Or to escape a snaking ground fire? Also, how would you hurl yourself? I think a better word could be substituted for hurl. Clamber, scramble, jump, leap. Also, leave out the passive was and make that action fully engaging.

The police car arrives and the officer tells people to stay behind the tape, but who put the tape up and when? If the police just arrived, was it the firefighters, who come from the building in the next paragraph (but I don't think firefighters tape off an area like police do, do they)?

As a prologue*, this serves a purpose of raising some questions that are aimed to make the reader curious to read on, but I think some of the questions are of the wrong type, i.e. what did I just read, not what will I read next.

This is my favorite line:
It was the most ruinous scene I had ever had the misfortune to witness.

I also like the rag-doll line Nathan pointed out.

*I am OK with prologues. I know there are many that hate them to the point that they will stop reading when they see one, or skip it, or get so angry they need to go out and kick a puppy. Really people, prologues are not THAT bad.

WORD VERIFICATION: yosori. Rocky's apology.

v.n.rieker said...

Thanks for continuing to do these critiques. They're fun!

Melanie Jacobson said...

The author definitely creates a distinct mood right off the bat, so I would give major points for atmosphere. But like a previous commenter, I got distracted by the red Jeep Cherokee detail. You know how (I think) Orson Welles said if you show a shotgun in the first scene, it has to be fired by the end of the movie? (That's a bad paraphrase, sorry.) I think this is a detail like that. The car someone chooses to drive tells us a lot about them, so if this car is supposed to illuminate something about your MC's personality, it's fine that we know that what she drives, but probably not important that we know it in the first scene when there are so many other things to process.

There's so much interesting stuff going on with the images of destruction that I was super focused on wanting to know what happened there and would be fine with saving a detail like this for later.

Nathan Bransford said...

Skipetty-

I still would recommend leaving the witching hour mention out because it distracts from the flow of the opening, which is the top priority. If that detail is really crucial it can either come later or be woven in a bit more naturally.

I don't know that levitation needs to come out, I just think it could be introduced with a little more finesse.

80s Queen said...

I am a new reader to your blog and I have to tell you that posts like this are great. It's awesome that the writer is willing to put themselves out there for all of us to see the critique. I know we all will have to do this one day when we get published but it's a scary thought for everyone else to see the red ink too. I guess that's another post.) Thank you for the post. I look forward to seeing more.

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks Maureen Anne, for offering your page for critique. Your work will be the better for it.

This seems like fantasy to me as well, but we don't really get much of a setting at this point. We need to know a little more. It's tempting to use waking up as a beginning, because we get that adrenalin rush when we're woken up in the middle of the night. Also why mention the 'witching hour' - a little confusing unless she's a witch. (Hmm - a lot of witchin' seems to be implied here)

The writerly references (to Camelot and the director) pulls you right out of the scene. Try rewording or eliminating those.

An intriguing excerpt, keep at it Maureen. It sounds as if this MC is pretty athletic if she can hop onto the roof of her car. Was that so she could see better? Or so she could be seen better?

Good luck with your writing.

Anonymous said...

These days I have read some scenes from others` manuscripts and I just felt that there is something wrong, but could not understand and explain what... This is the answer. I could never figure out. Thank you!

Mira said...

I love these critiques, Nathan. It's always a perspective shift when I read the page from your viewpoint, which is AWESOME, and I learn so much. Writing vs. writerly! Did you make that up? It's good!

I want to commend Maureen Anne for her bravery and mention that if Nathan says something like "this writer can write" (something he doesn't say often) and pust great attention into your page, I think you can take that as a deep compliment.

I agree with Nathan's edit and love the last paragraph - I do want to add one thing, though. I think what was missing for me were the emotions. That may be a matter of taste, though. Getting into the emotions would slow the scene down - which I would sort of like, but the author may want this to read very briskly and move into action fast. I've seen many books written that way - especially in the fantasy genre - so again, it may be a matter of taste. But I wanted to engage emotionally with being woken at a spooky hour of the night to rush to a fire and see people and animals die. Again, that may not fit with the prog., who may be a more action-oriented sort of gal, but that's my feedback for what it's worth.

Good luck Maureen Anne!!

Cathy Yardley said...

I mostly agree with the other comments, and Nathan's critique, Maureen Anne: you can definitely write! The main issue I had was feeling removed from your protagonist. You describe the scene, and the action, but I don't have any sense of emotion, and with first person POV, that felt off. Up on her Jeep's roof, however she got there...is she frightened? Is there someone she wants to save? Is she hoping the place will burn down?

Throughout, I don't know what her emotional investment is. I have no idea why she wouldn't be shocked that someone calls her at three in the morning to tell her a building's on fire and then hang up on her, or why she simply reacts like a fireman and rushes without question to the scene. Was she expecting this?

I'm not saying lay out all the backstory, or eliminate all suspense. But I'd just like a little more emotion and a sense of... anchoring, I guess, so I have an idea of who this character is, what's going on, and why she cares.

D.G. Hudson said...

BTW - I agree with Josin - Midnight is the traditional witching hour. I've never heard of a different one.

On the other hand, if this is a separate cult of witches, perhaps they have broken from the traditional. Only Maureen knows.

Anonymous said...

Awesome critique Nathan, and thanks Mareen for sharing. You definitely can write.

But I agree with Cathy Yardley that the writting was very distant for first person POV. I think we should know what the narrator is feeling and if the Witch Inn has any significance to her.

Other than that, well done. Definitely an intriguing start.

Kristin Laughtin said...

There's definite potential here, and I agree with the majority of Nathan's edit. The one thing that really threw me was the whole Jeep/levitation thing. Why was the protagonist trying to get up on the Jeep, and why is levitation the only possible explanation? And did the protag levitate him/herself, or was the "hand of an angel" reference supposed to signal that somebody else levitated him/her? I think it might flow better if you switch the order of this paragraph and put it after the one that follows it now, so we get more of a sense of how horrible it is that this inn has burned, and maybe some more motivation or an idea of what the protagonist was trying to accomplish by getting up on the Jeep.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Excellent suggestions, Nathan. I have to wonder why she is taking a dog to a fire. I would also suggest giving a hint of the stake on the first page. What was in that building that was so important to her?

Matthew MacNish said...

I NEVER disagree with Josin, because I consider her whip-smart brilliant, but 3 AM has always been the witching hour everywhere I've ever lived. I'm not saying it's not possible that there are different colloquialisms in different places, but the 3 AM bit didn't phase me at all.

I took the levitation to be either a joke or sort of just a bit of sarcasm for characterization. I was thinking she wanted on top of the car to get a better view, and she got surprised at how easy it was to get up there.

But Nathan's right, it can't be literal, because then this isn't pure contemporary.

That last paragraph is one of the tightest bits descriptive action I've seen in a while, though, so you're off to a great start.

Bill Greer said...

I couldn't tell the gender of the narrator. Male or female? I can't connect with him or her.

Anonymous said...

It's fiction. Get over it. The author is in control and the witching hour can be any hour the author wants it to be.

(I'm not the author either...I swear)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Anonymous

They're offering critique, taking time out of their day to try and help another writer. The writer is in control; she can evaluate the comments, decide whether they help her or not, and revise accordingly. They're simply providing reader information from their own experience. The writer can take that as they wish.

I'd respectfully suggest, however, that telling readers not to have an opinion, or not be confused or jarred by something, does not seem to be helpful. That's the whole point of critique: to see how other's experience your writing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these critiques, Nathan, and thanks to Maureen Anne for submitting.

The last paragraph doesn't work for me because it did not make sense. Up to this point in the narative, the building the writer describes has leaping flames and acrid smoke. It is a building that is so hot that the windows have shattered. It does not seem possible to me that the firefighters would be bringing people out in body bags or stretchers from a fire as serious as that described while it was in still full progress.

abc said...

Ink is the awesomest! He gets my vote for homecoming king! Or class president! or something.

I googled the witching hour and wikipedia says midnight. However, on Paranormal State, they always do their investigations at 2am and call it dead time. I just wanted to throw that out there. Because, yes, I do watch Paranormal State. And I always wanted to make a reference to dead time. Perhaps not related to the witching hour. I don't know.

As you were.

Anonymous said...

"That's the whole point of critique: to see how other's experience your writing."

Thanks so much for the explanation.

But the entire point of fiction is that we make it up and we create our own worlds. It isn't a socialist concept and we aren't all working together. And being that there's really no such thing as a "witching hour," and that it is based on folklore and fairytale and the supernatural, I don't think the author should be criticized at all about this.

Heidi said...

I love "silver-lipped whistle." It zooms me right to that point of action and I can see it.

Nathan, your talent really shines here. When I first read this piece, there was a lot about it I didn't like, and I was being a real Judgey McJudgerson.

But as I read your comments and how you looked at the piece openly, and how your edits tightened it up a bit, I learned that I shouldn't be so quick to dislike.

Thanks for another great lesson.

julienilson said...

I agree that the sentence about the levitation needs to be worked on--because I think in that sentence lies the potential for this firts page to be awesome. Nathan makes excellent points about why it doesn't quite work, and I think that sussing that out and making it clear on the page will make all the difference.

I also agree with the poster above who said that the last paragraph seems to come after a time jump: Our protagonist is watching a huge, leaping fire, and then body bags, when the removal of bodies would happen long after the fire was completely out. A quick sentence indicating the passage of time would help with that.

This is a very strong start though, and it did make me interested in what the rest of the story would be. And that's the whole point of a first page!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Anonymous 4:18

The author wasn't being criticized; she was being critiqued. That's the point of the exercise, and there's a difference between the two. Maybe this will help her write a better story. Maybe it won't. That's for her to decide, and to attempt. That's why a writer seeks outside opinions, which she did. She volunteered. The readers gave honest feedback about their experience.

The story is hers, and she didn't have to share it. But she did. And, whether she did or she didn't, what happens in the story is still up to her; if she doesn't like the comments about the witching hour she can ignore them. Maybe she explains everything beautifully on page two, and none of this is needed. Or maybe it's not, and this critique will prove fruitful. That's for her to decide. And our socialist experiment isn't forcing anything on her. In terms of the story, it's still a benevolent dictatorship of one.

Honest critique is not personal criticism. The only criticism in this thread has been from us. You, criticizing half the people here, implying a negative connotation to their honest feedback (perhaps out of an honest desire to protect the writer, or to assert that a writer doesn't need help from anyone), and perhaps me, criticizing the way in which the original argument was presentend (though I was attempting a critique, and did not mean to imply a personal criticism), because I disagreed with the idea that critique and personal criticism are somehow conflated, not to mention the impolite suggestion that those who offered feedback on the topic were somehow wrong to do so (as they were to "get over it", as if motivated by bitterness and jealousy rather than a desire to help, as requested by the author).

I'm sorry, I just don't see how your view that opinions should be silentced helps writers. Certainly, citique such as this may not be for every writer, but no one has to do this. If they want to write on their lonesome, without feedback, and avoid such socialist concepts as critique, well, that's perfectly fine. They can do that. But there's no need to sneer at people who do seek the views of readers, or the readers who try to help.

Perhaps I'm misreading your intent, and, if so, I apologize. Going it alone is a valid choice, and if that's what you choose, more power to you. But there are other valid paths, too, and people should have the freedom to speak freely. Again, if I'm misreading your view, I'm sorry.

Brendan said...

@Anonomous(1:51 PM)

Would it make a difference if the police and fire fighters came "past" instead of "out". That small change could indicate there is a triage area out of sight of the public. It solves the problem of where the policeman came from too.

Jaye Viner said...

I'm new also and found this post fascinating and a wonderful tool. Thank you for the offering and courage!

Jo-Ann said...

Nathan's reworking was an excellent example of how a passage can be polished - a lesson to all of us.

I'm going to be a little picky here, and I'll state up front that I've never been to a burning building, least of all at night, so I'm no expert. Do what you will with my comment -

I've been taught to engage all the senses when writing a description, and I noticed that the author tended to stick to the visual impact of the fire scene. I thought she missed an opportunity to include something about the smell and the noise (both of which would have been intense at that scene - burning buildings make a lot of noise, particularly as the inside collapses, I hear! And as for the smoke - cough, cough...)

I also wondered how much detail the MC might be able to see during the witching hour in the confusion surrounding a smoking building. The policeman would have to be very close for the MC to discern the whistle's silver lip (rather than just a flash of something in the maelstrom as he strode past).

To summarise: try less visual, more olfactory and auditory!

Otherwise, a good opening.

Kelle Z Riley said...

I enjoyed this offering. Nathan's suggestions helped to make it even better in places, but it is/was already strong. My only suggestion is to give the reader a bit of insight into why the inn is important to the protagonist (and by extension, why its fate should be important to the reader). As others have said, what is her emotional reaction to the events? Knowing this would pull me deeper into the story which is what a good opening is supposed to do. Good Job Maureen Anne--thanks for sharing.

Claire Dawn said...

I agree on being writerly. A friend doing a degree often has me help with his academic papers, and they feel like scientific equations. I know they can't be as light as fiction, but if I have to stop and unravel every other sentence in my mind, I'l have a headache by the end. And I wonder if the teachers are much better.

Maureen said...

Thank you Nathan. Thank you all. Making some adustments after considering all your insights.

Maureen Anne

Kyla said...

I agree with the description of this writer's talents. She's obviously a great writer. I loved some of the ideas her writing made me think of.

But...

It seemed a little...distant. It was all said in 1st person, which is usually very personal, yet we get no personal color to this scene. I feel as though in an attempt to rush the reader into the exciting action of the story (a GREAT thing), the writer has skimmed the personal information.

Like, how does she FEEL about this burning? Is she scared by what's happening? Sad? Happy? Excited? Imagining the money she'll get from the insurance (if she owns it, also not mentioned)? Thinking of the last time she was inside that building?

It was a short piece, of course, so perhaps the writer gets into that later. But a first page, to me, needs to not just thrust me into action and intrigue, it has to teach me something about the main character. Even just a tidbit, likes she's overly emotional, or hardly emotional at all. Anything, as long as it's personal information.

Besides that, and Nathan's critique, I think this page has incredible potential. I could see so many places this story could go and I'm wondering where exactly she'll choose to take it. I'd definitely read on.

Hope this helps, and thanks for the fabulous article! I have a great friend who could definitely use the advice of avoiding being writerly (I could use it myself on occasion). So, thank you, Nathan, for the reminder! Have a great day!

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