Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Page Critique Thursday: The Importance of Staying With Your Character

Here's how these critique thingamaboppers 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 dios4vida, whose page is below:

Title: No Hill Without Treasure
Genre: Fantasy
(248 words)

Windrunner raked his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. With the other hand he swished his sword back and forth, trying to remember everything he’d been taught. His mind seemed strangely blank. In his nervousness he’d forgotten almost all of his year-long training.

There were others wandering around, most in similar positions. Each had the same look of nervous anticipation in their eyes. They were all there for the same purpose. Today was the annual Wisdom Challenge – the one chance a boy had to prove that he was a man.

A robed man stepped up behind the crowd. “Ksenia Windrunner!”

He cringed. He hated that name. Most people didn’t know his given name was Ksenia, and his mother was the only one to ever call him that.

Windrunner took a deep breath and followed the man into the arena. Gravel crunched under his feet. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach. He resisted the urge to rake a hand through his hair and focused instead on approaching the group of elders waiting for him.

A member of the council stood and addressed the crowd that had gathered. “Today is the first day of spring. We begin a new season and a new year today. Let us hope a new man is born before us as well!”

The man resumed his seat and looked at Windrunner. “Your name, Wisdom-seeker.”

“Ksenia,” he replied, “though I have chosen to be called Windrunner.”

The men of the council nodded. “A strong name. Your age?”

Now then! I like this page and feel like Dios4Vida has a strong character and is on the way to building a strong world. I like the way it feels as if Windrunner is on his way to becoming a new person through this rite of passage.

However, I'm just a tad concerned that the style feels a bit trapped between third person limited and third person omniscient. This sounds very scholarly, but it actually has some important implications.

We start a bit zoomed out from Windrunner since we're seeing his hair color, which is not something a character would think themselves. Then we zoom into his head and see his thoughts, then we're zoomed back out when we get a summary of the Wisdom Challenge.

The result is that this breaks up the flow somewhat and it becomes difficult for a reader to get their bearings. I think the first line is fine in this context because it's okay to start zoomed out and then zoom in, but once we get inside Windrunner's head I think we should have his perspective of what the Wisdom Challenge represents without the omniscient exposition of "the one chance a boy had to prove that he was a man." I feel like this would be more compelling if we had a sense of what Windrunner himself wanted to prove, and to whom, and how he would describe the challenge.

And this dovetails with my second thought, which is that while it feels like something is happening, I don't know that we have a sense of the importance of that moment because the stakes aren't yet clear and it's not clear why Windrunner cares. Leading up to this actual event, if we know why this challenge is so important to Windrunner we'll feel both a stronger connection to him as well as what happens with the challenge.

But still, I think this is a promising start, and with a firmer direction on which way the narrative should go I think this will be in strong shape.

Redline:


Title: No Hill Without Treasure
Genre: Fantasy
(248 words)

Windrunner raked his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. With the other hand he swished his sword back and forth, trying to remember everything he’d been taught. His mind seemed strangely blank. In his nervousness he’d forgotten almost all of his year-long training.

There were others wandering around, most in similar positions. Each had the same look of nervous anticipation in their eyes. They were all there for the same purpose. Today was the annual Wisdom Challenge – the one chance a boy had to prove that he was a man. This part should be from Windrunner's perspective.

A robed man stepped up behind the crowd. “Ksenia Windrunner!”

He cringed. He hated that name. Most people didn’t know his given name was Ksenia, and his mother was the only one to ever call him that.

Windrunner took a deep breath and followed the man into the arena. Gravel crunched under his feet. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach What is he scared of? What does he have to remember and do? We're already in his head so maybe delve a bit more into what he wants to happen and what he fears. He resisted the urge to rake a hand through his hair and focused instead on approaching the group of elders waiting for him.

A member of the council stood and addressed the crowd that had gathered redundant. “Today is the first day of spring. We begin a new season and a new year today. Let us hope a new man is born before us as well!”

The man resumed his seat and looked at Windrunner. “Your name, Wisdom-seeker.”

“Ksenia,” he replied, “though I have chosen to be called Windrunner.”

The men of the council nodded. “A strong name. Your age?”

Thanks again to dios4vida for offering this page for critique!






32 comments:

Mr. D said...

What's at stake? It's the right of passage, when the boy becomes a man. Most cultures have that. Here in America, it's when you get your driver's license.

Megan Stirler said...

I noticed two uses of the "rake the fingers through the hair" phrasing... Seeing such close repetition of a phrase like that always takes me out of the story.

Robin Reul said...

Excellent comments.One thing I'd add to the mix, because I find it a lot in my own work when I revise, is repetition of the phrase "rake his hand through his hair" just a few paragraphs apart. Often I will read through my whole work and make a list of words or phrases I find often, then do a search and destroy and change it up to keep it interesting and less distracting.

Looks like a great premise and a great start!!

Robin Reul said...

Looks like we were typing the same thought at the same time, Megan...lol

Robin Reul said...

And that said, I used often twice in the same sentence! Ack! See? Easy to do!

Michael Runyan said...

I'm not sure that the driver's license is the right of passage, or at least, it wasn't for me.
My two cents, and you can take that and ten bucks and buy yourself some Starbucks.

Stephanie {Luxe Boulevard} said...

I will simply do a by-paragraph breakdown of the technical things, then offer my overall thoughts.

P1:
I sort of felt like I should have been told sooner he was nervous. The way he raked his fingers through his hair and swished his sword back and forth, gave me the feeling he was cool, calm, collected, a little proud. Then I was told he was nervous, contradicting my initial thoughts of him. Perhaps the sentence should have read, "With the other hand he nervously swished his sword back and forth ..." Then I would know right off the bat he was doing it tentatively, even giving me the idea that maybe his eyes are on the ground, his toe scraping against the grass.

P2:
"Nervous anticipation" is redundant.

P3:
Behind the crowd? That ought to be more specific, because now I am imagining a crowd of people facing a wall, or something similar, away from the area. It makes me wonder, if nobody is facing the area, they cannot see the events taking place, so what's to be nervous about?

P4:
Another rake through his hair. A bit repetative being said again so soon, but if you tell me in a word or two that this is a nervous habit he has, then I can sympathize.


I was a little caught off guard, my inital entrance into this world (novel) being the sight of someone's head. Now if he were a boy, the first sight being the face of a woman who would later alter his life in some way, sure. I would have liked to enter, seeing him studying his sword, what it meant to him, the purpose it was about to serve for him. It would make for a good seque into this challenge, where he could, as Nathan mentioned, tell what this challenge represents (beyond determining if he is a man or not) and what it means to Windrunner. Making that point, deciding what is at stake, is most important. It will tell so much about your character: Is he reserved and really doesn't care about a stupid traditional challenge? Is he proud, wanting to prove himself? Is he nervous about making a fool of himself or of losing altogether?

You also have the opportunity to draw out a great parallel for Windrunner with the fact that it is Spring. A new season is upon them, there is new growth, new life is being shed. He is hoping to come out of this a new man, with a newfound perspective, a new life ...

Wonderful job on the writing, very vivid, very in the moment. You seem to have created a world to where you know it inside and out. For me, that is one of the most important things when I'm reading. I want to feel as if I'm standing next to the characters, in the world with them. you accomplished that, hands down!

Anonymous said...

I love these critiques. This one was great.

But I'm always slightly annoyed by the concept of "being taken out of the story," for such little things. Seriously! If some of the complaints...not just here but everywhere...can take people of of stories so quickly these people may be the ones with the problem not the author.

Reading is also thinking and processing at the same time. In many ways it's mental multi-tasking. And we should be taken all over the place at certain points in a book. Otherwise we'd all be reading .99 digital romances.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I think there's something to that and this type of exercise can certainly be taken too far. But writing is such a delicate balancing act of getting someone to forget they're reading words and to just lose themselves in the story, and I think the little things in the beginning have outsize importance compared to the rest of the story. I'd critique something much differently when it's page 1 vs. page 278.

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't have the time (or skill, for that matter) to give this the great, deep assistance Nathan does, but I will say: Windrunner = awesome nickname.

It is a nickname, right?

bcomet said...

I always learn from these critiques and appreciate Nathan, the gallant author/writer, and this forum for learning.

Thank you.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I agree with Anonymous here (whom you've already addressed). I didn't feel pulled out of the story by these little shifts in perspective; I hardly noticed that there were any shifts given the small size of the sample. These problems could be fixed by some minor rephrasing, but I'd need to know more about the character to tell if some of these more omniscient thoughts would really be out of character for him. I really don't see the issue of "the one chance a boy had to prove that he was a man". It's phrased a bit generally, but Ksenia's a boy and maybe that's just the way he thinks, you know? I think I'd need to read more of the book to determine if this was really a big problem with the manuscript.

Same thing with wanting an explanation of the butterflies. It's the first page. The stakes will probably be explained, and to be honest, I get a little annoyed when too much is revealed up front. I like a little bit of mystery on the first page.

But like you said, sometimes these exercises are harsher than they need to be, and as a former agent, you are accustomed to this sort of critique given the volume you had to read and sift through. As a reader, though, these shifts would not disrupt my experience.

Stephanie {Luxe Boulevard} said...

Anon,
I can agree with being overly critical on small points, but it is the little things that add up to a superb novel. A superb novel will claim my undivided attention, front to back. I am a power reader, and if I don't finish a book within a few days my husband assumes it isn't all that good.
So maybe you are right in a way, it is the reader, because this reader never wants to be pulled away.

Mr. D said...

Michael,

Um... that was meant with tongue in cheek.

D.G. Hudson said...

I wasn't jarred by the change in POV, but I would like to know what happens if he fails.

The stakes - if it's only rite of passage - is that he suffers embarrassmenet in front of his elders or peers. Now if he's evicted from the tribe, or must prove otherwise his 'worthiness', then the stakes get more interesting.

Thanks dios4vida for submitting your work. Thanks, Nathan for sharing your skills.

Sara said...

Yay for page crits being back on the blog!

First, I want to say that I like this piece because it's so imaginative. I like that about fantasy - it's such a different world and I admire writers that can create that.

In terms of improvements I might consider making:

1. One thing that I found a bit disruptive were the highly descriptive terms ("raked," "crunched," "shaggy," "swished," "butterflies fluttered," etc.) in close proximity and rapid succession.

I think Nathan described something like this once as "being writerly" instead of just writing the story. It's something we're all prone to/guilty of sometimes. But basically, to me it means getting fancy (or using the good ol' thesaurus) when actually you don't need to. When was the last time you heard someone say they "raked" anything except leaves? Ditto on the fluttering etc. In combination, it felt distracting. I'd rather just hear the story, told in your own words. That would be more powerful.

2. I agree with comments above in terms of getting in his head. I think if you focused more on what he thought and felt instead of external sounds/details, it would be more powerful. I want to feel his nervousness instead of what sounds the ground material under his feet are making or what sound his sword makes swishing through the air. More importantly, I want to understand the enormity of the situation/what's at stake.

3. I might recommend reading this out loud to yourself. That's something I try and anytime I stumble over a word or phrasing, I change it.

Lastly, I wanted to say thank you for bravely sharing your page! Great job!

Robin Connelly said...

Just out of curiosity, how often do you do a critique like this?

Kat Ward said...

I really liked this opening. I don't usually read this genre of writing. I got his nervousness, his swishing the sword back and forth with his mind bland despite his year-long training.

I like the short sentences: "Gravel crunched under his feet" and "Butterflies fluttered in his stomach." Good, short beats to create the atmosphere.

I like that he resisted raking his fingers through his hair again. It shows consciousness and awareness.

I would read more.

Zakgirl said...

Thank you for this wonderful post.

I struggle with Point of View(POV)and Nathan your explanation seems to make it so much easier to understand.

I have a long way to go with this whole 1st and 3rd omniscient thingy and POV in general but I believe you've helped open my mind a tad more.

Thank you and keep up the good work!

Zak.

Zakgirl said...

And, to the Writer, dios4vida, I think I would like to read, No Hill Without Treasure when it's finished. Thanks for sharing.

Zak.

Mira said...

Nathan - excellent critique, as always. I didn't see the change of POV until you pointed it out! And I agree that abit more emotional context would be great.

Dios4vida - I love fantasy, and I would definitely keep reading! I want to know what the Wisdom Challenge is!! I'm serious - let me know when it's done, I'll buy it.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,
I thought you were amazingly clear on the POV. It's something I have struggled with to understand.

Adele Richards said...

These critiques are so helpful, thanks Nathan.

Re shifts in POV: I think that even when the reader doesn't know why the writing feels slightly off (perhaps due to POV issues), we are still subconsciously aware that something isn't quite right. That's why it's so good to correct even small flaws.

Sheesh. Writing is hard!

Maya said...

Coming at this a day late, but my 0.02:

Shifts in POV: It's not that I think shifting is a definite no-no but I agree with Nathan that it would simply read more smoothly if you kept the closer perspective when describing the rite of passage. By keeping it a closer perspective, you could work in how he felt about the challenge easily so we get 2 for 1 on information and you can pack a bigger emotional punch.

That said, as a writer, I do find analyzing shifts in narrative distance to be tedious, but I'm pretty thrilled when someone offers a way to tighten things up. (I use my hubby for that task!)

Brenda said...

Hi all, dios4vida here.

Thanks so much for all of the positive feedback! I've been in a bit of a writerly slump recently and you have really lifted my spirits (and awakened the Muse, methinks)!

For those who might be wondering, No Hill Without Treasure went out to agents without a bite of interest. I'll be doing rewrites on it soon, though, don't you doubt.

Thanks Nathan, for your invaluable critique, and once again to everyone else. :)

marion said...

Only one thing jumped out at me this time, that hasn't already been commented on:
"A robed man"
Black-robed...White-robed...?
Something concrete.

Jo-Ann said...

The critiques are a great feature of your blog, Nathan, thanks for taking the time to do these.

@ Brenda - I hope the exercise was helpful. I agree that's it's a good opening, but wonder if there are ways to make it even stronger. For my two cents: nobody has commented on the title, so maybe it's just me, but I found myself going Huh? Maybe it's cultural and means something to USA-ians (ie, a pun) but even after reading the opening I was none the wiser about what it might mean.

An opening needs a strong hook, and maybe dropping the part about raking his shaggy brown hair and going straight to the sword swishing is more succinct. Unlike the other commentor, I thought hair-raking was showing us he was nervous. As you both show and tell us he's nervous later in the para, it may be overkill.

I also thought you may have told us twice in a short space about him not wanting to be Ksenia. You call him Windrunner in the first sentence, then have him cringe when he's called by his full name, then when he's asked to state his name, he tells them what he wishes to be called. I'm not saying it's irrelevant, but wondering if some of that can be saved for later, and you focus more on the hook withn the opening paras - a challenge that's going to mark him as a man (or not).

Welshcake said...

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to switch between third person limited and third person omniscient. Done skilfully, it can be effective and unobtrusive. Phillip Pullman recently gave a great lecture on POV. He has some very robust views on present tense!

http://www.pearcelecture.com/lectures/2011

Cheryl said...

Woot woot! Been too long since we've had a crit!

Ditto what he said and would like to also add the repetition of "TODAY is the first day of Spring....new year TODAY."

I dug it. Felt it was an intriguing start but would like to be further in his head. It was very distant for my tastes.

@Stephanie {Luxe Boulevard}: So agree with you. Any book I pick up, I want to read from start to finish. I devour a book. If it only makes me want to nibble, then I rarely finish it nowadays.

Matthew MacNish said...

This week! The books.

Also, how bout them niners?

Mira said...

"For those who might be wondering, No Hill Without Treasure went out to agents without a bite of interest"

Brenda - sorry to hear that! Please keep on, in whatever form you wish to publish, because I want to read your boook!!

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Disagreement of number. "Each had the same look of nervous anticipation in their eyes. They were ..."

Each is singular. Their eyes is plural, they were is plural. If you don't want to go with the obvious, but ptentially sexit "Each had the same look in his eyes" or the clumsy "Each had the same look in his or her eyes" get rid of the pesky "each."

Try this -

They all had the same look of nervous anticipation in their eyes. They were ..."

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