Slow down and set the scene (Page critique)

by | Sep 26, 2019 | Critiques | 1 comment

Painting of a woman painting a landscape

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Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I’ll present the page without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to SusanneDunlap, whose page is below:

Here’s my first page of QUEENS OF OIL AND WATER:

Elisabeth woke before the sun rose, pulled a dressing gown over her night shift, and lit a candle to take up the stairs to her new studio on the third floor of the Hotel du Loubert. For a few days, she’d been afraid her stepfather Le Sèvre would persuade her mother that renting an extra room just for this purpose would be a waste. And where do you think the money will come from, now that I’m retired? he’d said. But Elisabeth countered with every argument she could think of—no smell of oil or shavings of pigment in the parlor, and she would be able to paint more and earn more money. That final point sealed the bargain, and here she was. 

Once the studio door closed behind her, she let the candlelight flicker over the brushes and pigments she’d arranged in cubbies by size and color the day before. Then, in one long, gentle breath, she blew out the candle the way her father had taught her, so she could watch as the flame bent and divided and passed through the colors he always asked her to name—yellow, ochre, carmine, ultramarine, violet, and the shades in between. When the flame extinguished to twining threads of smoke, she breathed in the acrid scent and sighed into the comforting twilight. 

This was her world. She need never again be jolted out of concentration by Le Sèvre and her mother’s bickering, or have to move her easel to accommodate a new arrangement of furniture, or paint in an unheated corner of a room in the middle of winter.

It takes a great deal of mental energy to start reading a novel. You are starting with a completely blank slate and have to start piecing together where you are and what’s happening.

Thus, when you’re writing the opening of a novel, it’s crucially important avoid overloading the reader before they have their bearings.

I like the idea of this opening and the evocative interaction between flame and paint, but I struggled to get my bearings because the opening feels very rushed. I couldn’t quite piece together where and when we were located before Elisabeth is rushing off to paint.

You often hear advice that you have to grab the reader off the bat, but don’t confuse that with rushing your way to the good stuff. You have to ease the reader in and get them into the flow of the novel. (I address this in more detail in Rule #13 in my guide to writing a novel).

Try to make absolutely sure your reader knows where they are and be precise about what’s on your protagonist’s mind and you’ll be on your way.

One other thing: waking up is an opening I’d suggest avoiding because it’s extremely common and a bit of a cliche. In the case of this page, why not just start with the painting?

Here’s my redline:

Here’s my first page of QUEENS OF OIL AND WATER:

Elisabeth woke before the sun rose, pulled a dressing gown over her night shift, and lit a candle to take up the stairs to her new studio on the third floor of the Hotel du Loubert. [Slow this down and unpack. First establish where she is waking up, then establish where the Hotel du Loubert is in relation to where she is waking up. Or consider just opening in the studio as she’s interacting with her paint.]

For a few days, She’d been afraid her stepfather Le Sèvre would persuade her mother that renting an extra room just for this purpose [for what purpose? Be more specific and add flavor/personality.] would be a waste.

And where do you think the money will come from, now that I’m retired? he’d said.

But Elisabeth countered with every argument she could think of—that they would no longer have to smell of oil or pigment shavings of pigment in the parlor, and she would be able to paint more and earn more money. [“Every argument she could think of” is just two arguments? Also try to avoid repetition of “more”] That final point sealed the bargain, and here she was

Once the studio door She closed the studio door behind her and she let the candlelight flicker over the brushes and pigments she’d carefully arranged in cubbies by size and color the day before. Then, in one long, gentle breath, she blew out the candle the way her father had taught her, so she could watch as the flame bent and divided and passed through the colors he always asked her to name—yellow, ochre, carmine, ultramarine, violet, and the shades in between. [“Passed through” is confusing to me. The flame is literally going through the paint? Is this magic? Needs to be clearer] When the flame extinguished to twining threads of smoke, she breathed in the acrid scent and sighed into the comforting twilight[I don’t mind “comforting twilight” as a phrase but it feels a little stuffed into this sentence.]

This was her world [Be more specific, add more flavor. This feels too general]. She need never again be jolted out of concentration by Le Sèvre and her mother’s bickering, or have to move her easel to accommodate a new arrangement of furniture, or paint in an unheated corner of a room in the middle of winter. [Another sentence that feels a little overstuffed.]

With a little more precision about the description and Elisabeth’s mindset as well as a little more patience, I think this page will be in a better place.

Thanks again to SusanneDunlap!

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Art: At the studio by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior

1 Comment

  1. JOHN T. SHEA

    I found this first page quite measured in its pace and detailed in its descriptions of both the physical setting and Elisabeth’s state of mind and family situation. Quiet but informative, in other words. I would read on.

    Thanks to Susanne Dunlap and Nathan!

    Reply

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