Archive | April, 2008

Critiquing Ginny’s Revisions

Today, I’ll continue a series that we began a couple of weeks ago–critiquing the first paragraphs of novels by my loyal blog readers. A couple of days ago, I challenged you all to take a look at Ginny’s latest version. Last night, my wife and I went out to hear a lecture by a friend of mine who was speaking in Portland, and we got back too late for me to blog, so I’ll pick up tonight:

Here is Ginny’s revised version:

Zinovy looked at his watch and groaned. Five more hours. (italics) I cannot stand the wait. I must leave this place. (italics) Not that returning to earth would solve anything. He was going back to nothing. No family, no friends, and if Special Security Services had anything to say about it, no future either. But anything was better than his exile on this dinosaur of a space station.

Several of my loyal blog readers had issues with the italics, as I do. I think this is better than Ginny’s original, but I also think she can do better. The main issue I see here is that we have only the one character here–Zinovy, and all he’s doing is thinking about something that’s coming in five hours. Zinovy is thinking that he can’t stand the wait, and that echoes my own thoughts. I don’t want to wait five hours to watch him go home. I want to watch what he’s doing right now.

The thing is that I don’t know Zinovy yet, so there’s no way I could possibly care about him enough to watch him wait. I don’t want to watch grass grow, either. Maybe later, when I know Zinovy and care about him, I’ll be willing to wait, but that’s never going to happen unless he starts out doing something. This paragraph has the feel of the beginning of a Sequel, and I want a Scene.

This is a good time to answer a question that Ginny asked: “What’s MRU?”

Randy sez: I’m so glad you asked, Ginny. An MRU is a “Motivation-Reaction Unit” and you can learn all about it in my article Writing the Perfect Scene, which is my short version of Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Ginny, I’d recommend that you bring Zinovy on in action, and make it conflict. Fiction thrives on conflict. Zinovy has only a few hours left on the space station. Why not have him racing to complete a task, knowing that he isn’t going to be able to leave until it gets done? Or have him looking for something personal and immensely valuable that he’s lost and can’t possible leave without? Or have him sharing a passionate moment with a fellow crewmember who is replacing him on the ship, and whom he’s going to miss terribly? Or have him arguing with his commander, who is threatening to report him for rank insubordination? Or . . . whatever.

There are a thousand ways to bring Zinovy on in action and conflict. Pick one. Make it fit Zinovy’s character. Make it relevant to the story. And make it blow up in his face when the explosion on earth changes everything. Do that, and you’ll have a story that rocks from Word One.

In any event, I think we’ll all be happy to see your next revision. Tomorrow, I’ll critique Nessie’s paragraph, which goes thusly:

“Riverside. 25 Kilometres”
The sign flashed by. No warm homecoming feelings surfaced. Only coldness filled Rik Chandler. Ten years failed to ease the pain this town had inflicted on his life.
He’d sworn he would never set foot here again. Seems fate wasn’t going to let him off the hook. Gossip surrounding one death a decade ago sent him packing; now another death drew him back.

If anyone wants to get an early start by critiquing this one, fire away!

Critiquing Cate’s Revisions

I arrived back home from Idaho last night after a GREAT weekend in Coeur d’Alene. I was teaching a writing workshop with the Idaho Writer’s League and we had a wonderful time. A couple of my loyal blog readers came all the way from Canada, bringing another Canadian with them. Check out the picture on Val Comer’s blog. I am the one in green. The others are Viv, Val, and Bonne. (Bonne rhymes with Ron.)

While I was out of town, my loyal blog readers were busy commenting here on my last post, which critiqued Cate’s first paragraph of her novel. The main point I made was that Cate was smothering her start in backstory. Cate took the opportunity to revise her paragraph. In fact, she did it twice. Here are her two revisions:

Cate’s revision #1:

They brought him to me in chains, stood him in front of my cell. His lips were torn and bloody, face bruised, shirt crusted red. His eyes chilled when he saw me.

“David.” He shook his head. “No.” Looked to the guards. “I’ll tell you anything, let him go!”

Cate’s revision #2:

They dragged me through the door. Luc was there, shackled to a chair, face dancing with red rifle sights.

A woman stepped forward, Asen eyes locking onto me.

“You are Brenin Kynaston,” she said, and held up a pistol, pointed it to my forehead.

Randy sez: Both of these are great improvements over the original. I would say they are about equal in terms of potential, but I haven’t seen the whole story, so it’s impossible to say which is a better lead to the story. I think each can be tweaked to be a bit stronger.

#1 starts with a reference to a “him” who is unknown. I would say to specify his name from the outset. As Ginny pointed out, “chilled” is not the best verb here. The second paragraph has three separate quoted snippets of dialogue. I think this is one too many, so would recommend combining into two blocks. Also, Luc sounds quite eager here when I would expect him to sound defeated. Here is my (quickie) shot at revising this paragraph:

They brought Luc to me in chains, stood him in front of my cell. His lips were torn and bloody, face bruised, shirt crusted red.

Luc’s eyes glazed when he saw me. “David.” His voice cracked. He shook his head and twisted his neck with agonizing slowness to look at the guards. “I’ll . . . talk. Just . . . let him go.”

As for #2, I like the first paragraph but I think it would be slightly stronger to backload the sentence with the clause about being dragged in. It personalizes the violence to the POV character.

Several of my loyal blog readers have already noted that “Asen eyes” are confusing. Also, the statement “You are Brenin Kastonen” seems to me to be designed to feed the reader information (although it seems to be misinformation, since his name is David). I’m not quite sure what’s the purpose of this misinformation, so I’ll make a guess that is likely wrong–Luc has lied about David’s name. So I’ll propose some slight revisions here:

Luc sat shackled to a chair, his face dancing with red rifle sights, when they dragged me through the door.

A woman stepped forward, cold eyes locking onto me. “You are Brenin Kynaston, yes or no?” She pointed a pistol at my forehead. And smiled.

Whenever you edit, there is a chance that you are doing nothing but “disimproving” it. What do you think, Cate? Have I made it better or worse? You are the one who knows your story better than any of us, so only you can say which of these options actually makes sense for your story.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at Ginny’s revision of her first paragraph, but I’ll be happy to let everybody take a shot first at revising it. Here is her latest version of the paragraph I critiqued last week:

Zinovy looked at his watch and groaned. Five more hours. (italics) I cannot stand the wait. I must leave this place. (italics) Not that returning to earth would solve anything. He was going back to nothing. No family, no friends, and if Special Security Services had anything to say about it, no future either. But anything was better than his exile on this dinosaur of a space station.

Go to it, loyal blog readers! Let’s hear what you think.

I Critique Cate

I’ve been working hard all day on getting ready for the writer’s workshop in Couer d’Alene. I leave tomorrow and will get back Sunday night. In between then and now, I’ll do 8 hours of teaching and about 12 one-on-one critiques. It’s gonna be busy!

I see that many of my loyal blog readers have taken up the challenge to critique Cate’s first paragraph. I’ve been critiquing first paragraphs for a bit more than a week now, and yesterday, I challenged you all to try the next one for yourself before I tackle it. I’m delighted to see all the excellent comments you made. Cate’s head must be buzzing.

Now it’s my turn. Here is the paragraph we’re critiquing, submitted by Cate:

They came for me on the fifth night of the hospital stay, when my arm had started to heal and I was restless to get back to my guardian, Luc. I cursed the rock, in my sleep, that had brought me down in the fields, brought the thirty lashes on both me and Luc, left him bloody and unconscious and me just alive enough to watch. Was he alive, was he dead? They wouldn’t tell me.

Randy sez: I see a great, terrific, hot opening line. Then I see backstory for the rest of the paragraph.

Where does the backstory begin? Hard to say, but I’d say it’s already begun with the phrase “when my arm had started to heal.”

A hard lesson that I’ve had to learn over and over again (including with my own current novel I’m working on) is this: The reader doesn’t care two cents about backstory. The reader cares about frontstory. The reader cares about now. When you give the reader some frontstory, she starts caring about the character. After a while, she starts caring about the backstory. Your reader is paying the bills, so you need to give her what she wants.

I would cut the first paragraph here:

They came for me on the fifth night.

This has a ton going for it:
1) “They” — who are these sinister people?
2) “came for me” — whoever they are, I’m in a boatload of trouble.
3) “on the fifth night.” — fifth night after what? I gotta keep reading to find out. And why’d they come at night? Are they some kind of death squad? I HAVE to read more.

8 words, and you’ve already set the stage for a strong, scary scene. There is just no good reason to stop the story cold with backstory. Cate, I know there is some info you want to work in about how our hero got here. But listen, there are some Bad Guys standing around my bed just now–they came for me. I don’t have time to deal with the past.

Here are the things to ask: what do “they” want now? Why am I not going to give it to them? What are “they” going to do to make me give it to them? How far am I going to resist?

Answer those questions, and your scene will write itself. During that scene, you can sneak in a few things that hint at what happened in the last few days. Hero can demand to know where Luc is. “They” can threaten to break Hero’s other arm. Nurse Ratched can come in and demand that “they” leave. One of them can slap Nurse R. silly with an icepick.

As you do this, Gentle Reader will pick up that Something Bad happened a few days ago. But far more important, Gentle Reader will FEEL an iron terror that Something Way Worse is about to happen NOW.

NOW is what matters in fiction. If the backstory is so important that you have to start your book with it, then move your timeline back and make that the NOW of your story.

Randy sez: “Backstory bad! Frontstory good!”

Next week, we’ll continue with the next first paragraph. In the meantime, I’d love to see Cate post a new first paragraph that is ALL frontstory.

U Critique Cate

We’ve been critiquing first paragraphs of my loyal blog readers for the past week. Today, it’s Cate’s turn to be critiqued. Following a suggestion today by Camille, I think I’ll give you all a shot at critiquing Cate first. We’ll get to that in just a minute. First, I’ll respond to a few comments from today:

There was a question about Dale’s paragraph, which I critiqued yesterday. Some asked whether his use of the Rule of Three was a little lopsided, since the last sentence actually had a different form. Actually, that’s typical with the Rule of Three–the third time is different. This is true in fairy tales and jokes and many other situations. (Think of any fairy tale with three sons, where the youngest one gets the princess. Or think about those three nuns that went into a bar, and consider which one gets the punch line.) As the old cliche says, the third time’s the charm.

So I think Dale’s paragraph is fine just as it stands. Dale actually asked whether he shouldn’t explain just a little bit more, as follows:

“His first thought was that nothing had changed since he ran away.”

Randy sez: I vote against this idea. Now we’ve lost that big hairy “WHY?” that hangs over the whole first paragraph and impels us to read on. Don’t tell us! Make us wait!

One thing I like about Dale’s first paragraph is that we KNOW that something is about to change, just by the fact that Dale is saying so clearly that nothing has changed in the last year. The fact that he’s choosing to focus on the sameness is a signal to any intelligent reader that the sameness is ripe for a change, pronto.

Once again, good job, Dale.

Now we’ll move to Cate’s paragraph. Her first paragraph is:

They came for me on the fifth night of the hospital stay, when my arm had started to heal and I was restless to get back to my guardian, Luc. I cursed the rock, in my sleep, that had brought me down in the fields, brought the thirty lashes on both me and Luc, left him bloody and unconscious and me just alive enough to watch. Was he alive, was he dead? They wouldn’t tell me.

Want to play? Post your critique here. I’ll post mine tomorrow and then you can see how close you came to mine.