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!


  1. Parker Haynes May 1, 2008 at 5:48 am #


    I have a question. Do you see a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction as it relates to how openings should be handled?

  2. Karla Akins May 1, 2008 at 6:48 am #

    I am not an expert, but I’ll bite and try my first public online critique.

    I don’t think you need to include the sentence, “Ten years failed to ease the pain this town had inflicted on his life.” I think you’re giving away too much. I would just leave it at “Ten years failed to ease the pain” That makes me want to read more to find out why he has been in pain for ten years.

    Then again, I could be completely wrong because I’m new at this!

    Hey, Camille, I didn’t ditto you this time. Did ya notice?

  3. Camille May 1, 2008 at 7:16 am #

    I think this is a good opening and all the needed info is here. I don’t know if it’s just a matter of my own impatientce, but I find the last sentence to be the hook here and wonder what you think of putting it at the start?

    “One death a decade ago sent him packing; now another death drew him back.”

    (Then I rearranged a little to get the MC’s name in the next sentence.)

    “As the sign ‘Riverside, 25 kilometeres’ flashed by, Rik Chandler felt no warm homecoming feelings; only coldness. Ten years had failed to ease the pain this
    town had inflicted on his life.”

    But I wonder if the statements: He’d sworn he would never set foot here again. Seems fate wasn’t going to let him off the hook are necessary? I think Vannessa did a good job showing these two ideas already by giving us Rik’s pain as well as his reason and obvious unwillingness to come back.

    Randy, a couple questions:
    1. What are the elements we need to hook us as a reader? A main character we can care about, something about to happen, a need, or a conflict? What else?

    2. I’ve wondered the same thing Parker mentioned. Is this type of hook (above) more important for commercial fiction than literary? I’ve noticed some literary stories beginning a bit more philosophically. Is literary fic generally geared to appeal to the intellect, whereas commercial appeals more to the gut or emotion? Is that about the dumbest question y’all have ever heard?

    I don’t know for sure if this would be classed as literary, but M. M. Morris’s “The Lost Mother” begins with this first paragraph:

    They said it was bad for everyone, but nobody else the boy knew had to live in the woods. Even all these years later, with histories aligned—his own, the country’s—his dreams can still erupt in this welter of buggy heat, the leaf-rustling prowl of dark creatures a canvas thinness away, and stars, millions of stars so brilliant through the slant of the flap that with all the night sounds and sourceless shadows in wait the stars crackle around them as if the tent is an enormous boiling cauldron. And yet, they sleep, his father and sister on cots across the way. Everything they own is in this tent, most important the knives, cleavers and saws. Without his slaughtering tools, his father says he has nothing.

  4. Andra M. May 1, 2008 at 8:14 am #

    I’m with Camille in that the second paragraph should be the hook.

  5. Parker May 1, 2008 at 8:29 am #


    Thanks for jumping in on this lit/fic issue. I realize most writers are shooting at the mainstream as that’s where the mass of the markets exist. Perhaps I’m the oddball in our society, but I prefer a book where I may slow down and savor the poetry hiding in the prose.

    I’m not familiar with M. M. Morris, but I do like the opening. I’ll look for a copy of “the Lost Mother.”

    Another literary opening from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” that I find captivating.

    When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

    Randy, will you share your thoughts here? Please!

  6. Lois Hudson May 1, 2008 at 9:45 am #

    Nessie, I think Camille’s suggestions tighten up the pace of your already intriguing beginning. I want to see more. And it’s amazing how much we are learning from each other, and of course, from Randy.

    I chime in on the request for differentiation between commercial and literary fiction. My WIP is a broad sweep of characters during and after WWII, having to do more with the characters than with the war.

    I see examples of slower paced openings above, and cite authors like Ann Patchett (Bell Canto), Edward Rutherford (Sarum), Ken Follett (Pillars of the Earth), and Barbara Kingsolver (High Tide in Tucson, which starts with the hermit crab living in her house!). Just a sampling from my shelves, but all multiple-sales authors.

    Any hope for those of us who write in that slower, more sensate pace?

  7. Ginny Jaques May 1, 2008 at 10:44 am #

    Ditto Karla!

    And ditto Camille’s question–the “dumbest” one.

  8. Ginny Jaques May 1, 2008 at 11:11 am #

    RANDY: Your comments excite me. I can see all kinds of possibilities for Zinovy in action. Draft 3 may be following draft 2 into file 13. Draft 4 in process.

    I’m not sure yet, though. I want to hear your answer to Parker and Camille. I am listening to what Parker says about his reading ‘druthers, because my intended audience is readers who don’t mind sitting still and thinking philosophically–ones who might have the patience to read through a scene that is slower paced, without physical conflict, because the concepts are interesting.

    Another problem I have with developing a reader fan club for Zinovy is that at the beginning of the story he’s not very interesting. He’s tight, controlled, introverted, anti-social–an island. He NEVER gets excited or agitated because he is ALWAYS in control, at least in his mind. He is not an action figure. Boring.

    But he changes. That’s the whole story. I have to figure out a way to hook the reader at the beginning without making Zinovy act out of character.

    Hmm. Maybe he needs to be forced to act out of character. Maybe that’s the conflict?? Groan. Back to the drawing board.

  9. Ginny Jaques May 1, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    RANDY: One nother question: You say you write a lot of deep inner monologue. How do you keep your pace moving (action) with a lot of deep inner monologue?

  10. Parker May 1, 2008 at 1:51 pm #

    Ginny, enough confusion yet? Several interesting possibilities. Perhaps it’s time to sleep on it and see what you awaken to. But just for the heck of it here’s another rearrangement.

    The sign flashed by: Riverside–25 Kilometres.

    No warm feelings of coming home. Only coldness filled Rik Chandler’s heart. Ten years failed to ease the pain this town had inflicted on his life and he’d sworn to 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.

  11. Sam Robinson May 1, 2008 at 3:34 pm #

    I like the hook in your last sentence, but am not convinced about the rest of your paragraph as an opener for several reasons.

    Aside from your opening words looking like speech, when they’re not, we don’t know Rik, and are not yet in a position to sympathise with his thoughts. Proust waited something like 50 pages before introducing the madeleine cake that precipitated the memories on which his work is founded, but then he takes a bit longer to reach the point than most.

    Although the sign occupies the finest real estate in your book, it flashes by in a moment. Will it have further significance as your story develops? If so, then I’d suggest pausing and including a description of it from Rik’s viewpoint in a manner that uses it to give an indication of his state of mind and establish it firmly in our consciousness.

    Starting where you do gives me the impression that the next paragraph is going to be about Rik driving down the road, the one after that about Rik checking into a hotel, etc. As Rik seems to be by himself it’s going to be difficult to introduce meaningful action any time soon unless his car runs off the road or something like that, and it’s going to be hard to leap straight from here into a conversation with one of those gossiping relatives, for example. As such, your paragraph strikes me as falling into the category of what the late Jack Bickham calls ‘spinning the wheels’.

    Yes, as a literary opening it could work. In which case it needs to be superbly written (Parker’s ‘poetry’) and you’ll probably bust Randy’s word limit.

    “No feelings surfaced” – if I were browsing in a bookshop, I’d put the book back on the shelf at this point. I prefer writers who describe emotions, not the absence of them.

    Speaking of absence, I’m not offering a suggested re-write because I’ve got a feeling you might not be starting in the right place, and one of those slow ‘literary’ openings would need to be done in your own voice.

  12. Karla May 1, 2008 at 7:24 pm #

    Well, as much as I don’t want to (because I am sometimes accused of not having my own opinion) I have to agree with Camille again on the rearrangement. I love that last line as a first sentence hook.

  13. Heather Henckler May 1, 2008 at 8:20 pm #

    Here is the rearrangement I would make:

    “Riverside 25 Kilometres.” The sign flashed by. No warm homecoming feelings surfaced, only coldness (maybe describe the feeling of dread here more?). Rik Chandler had sworn he would never set foot here (or, in his hometown) again, but fate wasn’t going to let him off the hook. Ten years ago the gossip surrounding one death (not sure about the word gossip.. would have to know the story to really suggest something…backlash, perhaps?) had sent him packing; now another death drew him back.

    It does seem to me that “Riverside” will be important to the story (to respond to what Sam said) so I kind of like that we start with it. I’m with Sam though on exploring the description of Rik’s initial emotions (don’t ask me how)…or maybe Rik is a guy-guy who’s not really in touch with his emotions..hmmmmm….

  14. Pam Halter May 2, 2008 at 5:21 am #

    “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.

    I’ll give it a shot.

    Rik glanced at the sign as the car sped down the highway. Riverside. No warm memories rose at the thought of coming back to the town he swore he’d never set foot in again. One death a decade ago sent him packing; now another death drew him back.

  15. Meghan May 2, 2008 at 1:23 pm #

    Lol, I guess this is the appropriate place for my comment! Vennessa, I read your first paragraph and loved it but had one small tweak that would work beautifully. Here is the original paragraph:

    “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.

    I would be on the edge of my seat dying to turn the page and read more if you removed some information from the last sentence of that paragraph. Instead of “Gossip surrounding one death a decade ago sent him packing; now another death drew him back” please consider removing the gossip info so it’d look more like this: “Death sent him packing a decade ago, and now death drew him back.” And then wait until later in the story to sloooowly reveal that gossip surrounding the first death is what really drove him away. You could reveal that subtly through conversation with residents of the town.

    There’s my 2 cents.

    By the way, love Randy’s advice for Ginny’s paragraph.

    And Randy, thank you for sharing so much of your wisdom on this website. I finally took my writing off the back burner and currently I am completing Step 3 of the snowflake on what will be my very first completed draft of a novel and planning to attend my first writing conference in November.

  16. Bonnie Grove May 2, 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    Why not put him IN Riverside. 25 k’s is long enough for the guy to turn around and say, “forget it.” If he’s already there, we get the sense that something is about to start NOW, not in a few pages after he drives the rest of the way.

    I’d skip the “ten years” part at the beginning, you talk about later. I’d also cut the “Seems fate wasn’t going to let him off the hook.” line. What’s fate got to do with anything?

    So, to recap, the sign could read, “Welcome to Riverside” Then the homecoming sentence plays more clearly.

    I’d choose between the homecoming feeling or the coldness. Both are good, but together they lose some of their strength. I get the warm/cold juxtaposition, but it doesn’t strengthen anything here.

    Have his do something next. Grit his teeth, grimace, call his mama, something.

    Dump the “seems fate. . .” line. Change the last line to something more concrete than “gossip”. I like what Pam wrote, “One death a decade ago (or ten years ago) sent him (I’m not crazy about “packing”. Try to find a stronger verb); now a second death (find a stronger verb than “drew” – make it reach out and haul his butt back against his will – kicking and screaming) back.


  17. Ginny Jaques May 3, 2008 at 12:50 pm #

    HEATHER: Did you know that Zinovy means, “Walking with God?”

  18. Heather Henckler May 3, 2008 at 7:31 pm #

    I did not know that. Very clever for your story (and a good name too). To look it up I googled “zinovy baby names” and guess what link came up third? none other than the blog!

  19. Kate May 4, 2008 at 2:10 pm #

    If I may give you some constructive critisism, I believe you’re cramming the first paragraph with too much vague information, which is nearly as bad as cramming it with too much specific information. Try easing up a little. We don’t need to know anything about death until at least the next paragraph. Otherwise, it’s just too much to stomach.

  20. Daan Van der Merwe May 4, 2008 at 9:05 pm #

    “Riverside welcomes you.” Rik Chandler regarded the sign with a wry smile.

    His heart missed a few beats. Ten years failed to ease the pain this town had inflicted on me.

    He parked his car in front of a drug store and looked at the newspaper headings:


  21. Julie May 4, 2008 at 10:11 pm #

    I really want to see more of Rik’s reaction, not of what the speaker/author thinks of Rik’s reaction. Yes, for me it seems waaay too objective.

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