Yesterday, I challenged you, my loyal blog readers, to submit the first paragraph of your novel. Right now, there are about 72 comments piled up, so I’m going to start working through them and critiquing them in order. Today, we’ll look at Patty’s and John’s submissions:
Balancing a live goat on the back of your bicycle has its challenges. Tia stood on the pedals and pushed uphill toward the market as the young pygmy bleated and kicked against its bungee straps.
Randy sez: There is a lot to like here. The first sentence is strong because it’s different. You know instantly that this is not a novel about angsty, affluent America. In fact, the novel is set in Togo, Africa, a country Patty knows well. But she doesn’t tell us that right away, which is good. She tells us a small amount of information and then gets straight into showing the action. This is also good.
The second sentence immediately shows us our lead character in action–Tia riding her bike. This is good, because now we know who to root for. It’s always important to show your lead character for the scene as soon as possible. Readers don’t care about the scenery. Readers care about people.
One small issue I see right away is that we don’t know if Tia is a he or a she. I have inside information, so I know that Tia is a girl, but it would be good for Patty to let the reader know that ASAP. “Tia stood on her pedals…” would do the trick.
The other issue I see here is also a small one, but I believe it’s worth pointing out. In the second sentence, we have two characters taking action. One is Tia, the POV character. The other is the goat. I prefer to alternate the active characters by showing them in separate sentences. The reason for this is subtle, and is explained in detail in my article Writing the Perfect Scene, so I’ll leave you to read it there.
Finally, there is a reference to a “pygmy”. Presumably this is a pygmy goat, but there is just a chance that the reader might thing it’s a human pygmy. Not a high chance, but it might be better to make it clear.
I would revise the paragraph just slightly this way:
Balancing a live goat on the back of your bicycle has its challenges. Tia stood on her pedals and pushed uphill toward the market.
The young pygmy goat bleated and kicked against its bungee straps.
Please bear in mind that there are a thousand ways to write a paragraph like this, and it’s not clear which is best. Patty’s was pretty good to start with, so there wasn’t a lot I could do to make it better.
John submitted this entry:
Jeffrey threw the screwed up report at the maglift floor. Another attempt to recreate his experiment, another laboratory explosion. He punched the wall. He had made a successful shunt once. Why couldn’t anyone else?
Randy sez: This starts out pretty strong, with an action sentence. We know right away that our POV character is Jeffrey and that he’s unhappy. That’s good–we’re leading with conflict.
The second sentence is slightly problematic. Is it interior monologue? Sort of, but it doesn’t have the feel of a real person’s thoughts–the language is more formal than most people think. It feels like there is some authorial intrusion here–the author is working in a chance to feed the reader some information. I think it would be stronger here to put it more fully in Jeffrey’s words, and to not be quite so clear. Let the reader know part of the reason for Jeffrey’s frustration, but maybe not the whole thing.
The third sentence reverts to straight action–Jeffrey punches the wall. This tells us clearly he’s frustrated, so this is good.
The fourth and fifth sentences are again a mix of “almost interior monologue” but mixed in with a small amount of “author’s voice”. The key issue I think is this: “He had made a successful shunt once.” When people think about themselves, they usually don’t do it quite this way, in fact-oriented terms. They tend to color it with a bit of emotion.
I’m a little confused here about one thing. It seems that the failed experiment was somebody else’s screw-up, not Jeffrey’s. But we don’t quite know who is responsible. On first reading, I actually thought it was Jeffrey, but now I’m pretty certain that it’s somebody else. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything specific about that somebody else, not even a name, so I’m not quite sure who to be mad at. This is nit-picking, of course. The paragraph has a lot to like.
I don’t have a specific revised version to suggest for this paragraph because I don’t know the answer to a key question: Who screwed up the experiment? If I knew that, then I’d know who Jeffrey is angry at, and the interior monologue would write itself. I don’t think Jeffrey is angry at the situation–he’s angry at the incompetent imbecile who can’t reproduce his experiment.
Again, I’ll add a caveat here that this is just my opinion and there is always a chance I’m wrong.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next couple of sample paragraphs that were posted today.