I’ve been critiquing first paragraphs for the last few days here and today I’ll do the next one in the list, Ginny’s. Before I do that, a few comments and answers to questions.
First the comments:
1) Be aware that I am not actually infallible (at least not yet, though I’m trying to get approved by the relevant authorities 🙂 ) and so some of my critiques may be wrong.
2) Dissent is good. If some of you disagree with my opinion, I don’t mind at all. Feel free to say so (as many of you do already). In most cases, because of space and time constraints, I can’t continue discussing points where we disagree. I’d like to, but I generally want to keep moving forward.
3) I’m not able to critique material that’s emailed to me. As you can imagine, if I ever started doing that, I’d be unable to do anything else.
Now the questions:
Should you start with the main character’s POV or can it be anyone’s?
Randy sez: It can be anyone’s.
Daan posted a new version of his first paragraph. As several of you noted, it is much better because now we’re experiencing it through the eyes of a character. Waytogo, Daan!
Do you find yourself rereading first paragraphs in books after you’ve read a bit because it doesn’t really click until you get a little more info, or is it just me?
Randy sez: It’s just you, Camille. 🙂 OK, I’ll admit that sometimes a first sentence is just incomprehensible to me. Then I have to decide whether I want to keep reading or put it back in favor of an author who is willing to be comprehensible in the first paragraph.
Also, Camille, nice job on tweaking the first few paragraphs of the submission that I critiqued last week. I think it reads better now. I also think you have a potential winner here.
Could you comment on when to use Italics for thoughts? I’ve heard conflicting advice.
Randy sez: The trend is to use italics as little as possible. My own personal style is to write a lot of deep interior monologue that is clearly in the voice of the character. And I don’t see any reason to use italics for all that.
My technical question is: the way your blog is set up, do you see comments for older entries as they come in, or do you only look at the comments for the newest entry?
Randy sez: I CAN look at the most recent comments, but when there are a LOT of them, I don’t necessarily read the ones that are responding to posts written long ago. I do try to read every single comment for the most recent post. I have not yet read through all the one-paragraph submissions from last week (there are 83 of them right now, and last week was Xtremely busy). Of course, I read all the spam, and some of is, um, amazing. 🙂
By the way, this blog had its first birthday last week! It whizzed past without me noticing or buying a birthday cake or anything like that. So Happy Birthday to the Advanced Fiction Writing Blog, and thanks to all of you who’ve made this place a really fun place for me to hang out. I appreciate all of you!
On to critique Ginny. She posted this first paragraph:
The seven astronauts stood stunned and silent in the command room of the International Space Station, Galaxy Gaia. But it was not the explosion that held them frozen in disbelief. The blinding flash below them, over in a nanosecond, hadn’t even registered. It was the video monitor that held their attention. A split second ago the screen had been filled with the contorted face of the earth’s first great leader, the speakers blasting his strident, triumphant voice. Now they stared at a dark screen, and the shock of his announcement, cut off in mid-sentence, reverberated off the cabin walls. The invisible flash and the blackout had come at once.
Randy sez: You have a terrific scene in the making here. I think we are coming in on it too late to have the emotional impact that you want, though.
Have you ever come across a horrifying accident on the freeway–there’s a burning Volkswagen Bug upside down with its roof crushed in; there are bodies being loaded into an ambulance. And you crawl past it in stop-and-go traffic and think, “Wow, that’s horrible!” And then, because you don’t know these people and because you can’t stop and go back, you just drive on. And every couple of years, you remember it and wonder who those people were and what happened and what their story was.
That’s a little bit of what I’m feeling here. Something incredibly awful has just happened to this planet, and I don’t know the people involved enough to care. And now I don’t want to get emotionally involved with them because I know they don’t end well.
So I would suggest that you start the story a little sooner. Your location is fine. Your characters are fine. Pick one of those astronauts and put us inside her head. Show us her excitement at the forthcoming speech. What are the stakes? What’s she feeling? What does she want to happen? Build it up for five or ten pages. Make a whole scene out of it. Give us time to develop feelings for these characters, their hopes, dreams, loves, hates, their future.
THEN yank the rug out from under them. Show us the screen going blank. Show us our POV character’s confusion. Show us the crew racing to fix the glitch. Show us their horror as they realize that this is not a technical problem–this is the destruction of a planet (I think it is). Show it to us blow by blow and bit by bit and make us feel how awful it is.
When you do that, you’ll have a very fine disaster for your first chapter and you’ll have your reader RUNNING to the checkout stand at the bookstore to take this baby home, because no way is she going to stand in the aisle reading another chapter when she could be enjoying this book at home.
One technical note: I’m not sure what kind of explosion we have here, but it’s unlikely to literally be over in a nanosecond. Light travels only about one foot in a nanosecond. I forget the timescale for nuclear explosions, but I’m pretty sure they are quite a few microseconds. You could look it up. If you do, then don’t put it in the book, because you are telling the reader something the POV character doesn’t know.
I think you have the setup for a very strong story, here. Take advantage of it and give us the full power of it, Ginny! If you want to post another shot at your first paragraph, go right ahead and do that.
Daan Van der Merwe says
If it is of any help to you Camille, I often read the first paragraph(s) of a book again.
Daan Van der Merwe says
Thank you very much Randy. And all the readers for your inspiring comments.
In honor of dissenting, I actually rather like Ginny’s opening paragraph. I thought it had quite a bit of oh-my-God-what-happened-quick-turn-the-page! impact.
I like trying to figure out from contextual clues what kind of culture/setting/universe the characters are in, and what the main problem is. It adds to the suspense for me. If I were to read that paragraph in a book, I’d expect maybe something a little more to put it completely in context (like, “Dudes, the Earth just exploded and we’re all going to die from lack of supplies.” Or something), then a section break and the story would pick up a couple hours/days/weeks before the destruction of the Earth.
Some readers don’t read every paragraph in a novel, but sure, all read the first.
There’s so much to learn about this craft. I’d have never thought about moving Ginny’s disaster to the end of the first chapter, but to someone of Randy’s experience it probably seems obvious.
You certainly need time and experience to get used to this writing lark, that’s becoming more and more obvious to me recently.
I guess with my experience of 15 years as a web developer I’d be able to similarly critique peoples early attempts at websites, and the problems would seem as obvious to me as ours appear to be obvious to Randy.
Note to self: learning can’t be rushed.
Carrie Neuman says
Livinus, you are so right. I can skip over some Tolkein-esque description and never miss it, but I’ve got to have a great hook.
Ginny, I’m really curious about your great leader. What’s so special about him that he gets to be the first? You’re so far in the future that we need to name the galaxy but no one else in the unknown thousands of years of recorded history counts? Those are some big shoes for this guy to fill. I really want to see him in action and hear the characters talk about him before he gets blown up – or does the blowing up, as the case may be.
Lois Hudson says
While we know exciting stuff is coming (and I’d probably go on reading – I like sci-fi), Ginny’s paragraph is a bit general. I got the sense of planet destruction, too, but if the camera was on the leader’s face during a speech, could it not have been just the room in which he was speaking that blew up?
Good imagery of emotion and atmosphere packed into a few words: contorted face; speakers blasting; strident, triumphant voice… I can picture a victorious, but evil, dictator screaming away–(someone you love to hate)–but “great leader” seems to suggest goodness or greatness of character, which doesn’t seem to fit the picture. I know, someone with powerful leadership skills can be evil. I think it’s just the word “great” that could be made more revealing.
Intriguing though, and I’d like to see what’s coming. Keep at it, Ginny.
Barb Haley says
Happy Birthday on the blog, Randy. And thanks so much for a year of learning! When I study writing books, I learn how to write right. But very few books show examples of editing. By reading your comments, I’ve been able to go back and tweak my own work AND become more aware as I continue writing my WIP. Thanks to you and to my fellow-bloggers who are brave enough to allow their work to be edited for all to see!
QUESTION: Are you still writing, Randy? You share about so many things you’re doing. I can’t imagine how you do it all. Do you keep a daily count of words or pages? I’m only asking because I’m waiting on your next book 🙂
Pam Halter says
“The blinding flash below them, over in a nanosecond, hadn’t even registered.”
Is this author intrusion? It looks like everyone’s POV, but if something happened that they didn’t know about, it must be something the author is telling the reader. I’m not sure.
But Randy’s suggestion is great. We do need to have someone to care about before a calamity. It keeps us reading.
Happy Birthday, AFW blog! May you see many more! You’re 1 – yet so wise! I’ll bake something in honor of this occasion. What flavor e-cake do y’all like?
Of course, we appreciate you, too Randy!! Thank you so much for this blog !!!!!!
Thanks for the critique and all the comments, everyone. It’s so good to hear different impressions, especially from people who don’t have the story in their head and don’t know what the author knows. That gets to be a challenge sometimes. That’s why a good critique group is priceless. If you don’t have one, find one!!
(Gee, I didn’t know my paragraph post would stir up dissention. Let’s all have a slice of birthday cake and be friends.)
I am intrigued by Ginny’s story too – I already was when I heard about it from her at MT Hermon. 😉 and can’t wait to see it published.
Randy nailed it – the actual event would be breathtaking if we witnessed it, and would be a very powerful emotional experience if we could see it through a character’s eyes.
Like the car wreck analogy; we could witness the thing first hand and feel a bit more touched, or we could know the people in the car and be far more impacted. Of course, we could actually be IN the car and have a powerfully visceral experience. Who wouldn’t slap down a wad of cash for a gut wrenching experience!
Feel free to disagree with me; just don’t throw cake. It’ll make a mess.
Bonnie Grove says
I agree, Ginny, that you have the makings of a great story. I was interested in what would happen, but I would have liked to see the event from inside the head of one of the characters. That is just my preference (and it’s the way I write, so my bias is showing).
I was confused by the word “cabin”. I know that it is a correct term, but a vision of a log cabin popped into my head uninvited.
Could you think about giving the leader a name here? Perhaps you could give a name and then let the reader find out who the person is later?
I think its a great start to your end time story. Good job!
Karla Akins says
I agree with you, Randy. Camille has a winner. Way to go, Camille!
I agree with you, also, in that I don’t reread first paragraphs. I don’t have time. You either have me in the first paragraph or two, or I don’t read the book. Period. My time is too valuable no matter what kind of reviews the book gets. I read the jackets, too, and if the jacket doesn’t grab me, forget it.
bonne friesen says
As a newbie (I’m one year into learning the craft) I’m with Iain on needing to remember that learning takes time, but having learned about the 3 disaster structure, I thought ‘Wow, how’s she gonna top this at the end of Act 1?’
Dwight Swain says to always start the story just before, during, or just after something changes. This is clearly a huge change, but it’s so significant that you’re going to need flashbacks later to give the necessary background. If it’s any comfort, I’m having the exact same issue, Ginny, of wanting to start with a real bang, but I hating to use flashbacks.
Randy, is it ok or generally frowned upon to have an action packed prologue with Chapter One going back to just before it happens? How about just a paragraph or two for the exciting hook on a page before Chapter One? I’ve seen this done recently, and it lets you know that major action is coming, even if it’s a slower start to chapter one. Also, my work is directed to a juvenile audience, does this make a difference to what is appropriate here?
Doh! I used italics for inner thoughts in the piece I sent you for workshop this weekend. (hangs head in shame).
I agree with Randy, and think you should start a bit before the actual explosion(?). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have tension. Consider starting with an altercation between two of the members on the space station — political, involving the Supreme Ruler would be nice. You could have some of the other members take sides in this arguement and have them do annoying things to each other. That way when the scene is shown, tension will already be high. would something like this work for you?
Ginny, I was intrigued by your paragraph as well. I’d probably read the first sentence and pay for the book so I could read the rest, but I found myself wishing I could see the President’s speech through the eyes of one of the astronauts and experience what you describe in flashback.
Wow, Ginny, great story idea. Begginning rather (since I don’t know the whole plot). Sounds very high concept.
Tami Meyers says
I may be a bit odd, but when I pick up a book I seldom read the first paragraph first. I usually pick a random spot in a book and read a bit, then pick another chapter and read a bit more. I may or may not read the beginning before I buy the book. I guess I want to be sure that the story stays strong through more than the first chapter.
Camille, I have often gone back to reread the first paragraph for clarification, and have even found plot clues that I missed because I didn’t understand the story well enough to see them the first time.
Ginny Jaques says
WOW! So much good stuff to respond to! I’ll try to do it all in 15 words or less (lol).
Randy sez: You have a terrific scene in the making here. I think we are coming in on it too late to have the emotional impact that you want, though.. . . So I would suggest that you start the story a little sooner.
Ginny sez: RANDY, you’ve just opened up a whole nother intriguing can of worms for me. (I know “nother” is not a word, but it should be.) I’m back to the drawing board with great enthusiasm!
It might be interesting to you to know that you have seconded Donald Maass’ opinion (which doesn’t surprise me, since you’re so smart). When I showed him my original Chapter One (which is now Chapter Two and on its way to becoming Chapter Three, thanks to you) at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, he said he couldn’t connect with my main character. I tried to fix that with this present opening (farther on in the chapter) but I think your idea is the real solution. THANK YOU SO MUCH!
On the technical note, I used “nanosecond” because this “explosion” turns out to be something other than what we, in this four-dimensional world, call “nuclear.” It’s the “instant” (hence, faster than microseconds) re-making of the world that happens when Christ returns to set up His new kingdom.
A TECHINCAL, SCIENTIFIC QUESTION FOR YOU, RANDY, IF YOU HAVE TIME TO ANSWER: CAN THERE BE MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF “NUCLEAR” RADIATION? IF MY “EXPLOSION” ORIGINATES FROM OUTSIDE THIS FOUR-DIMENSIONAL WORLD, COULD THE RESULTING RADIATION BE CALLED “NUCLEAR”? OR IS “NUCLEAR” TOO SPECIFIC A TERM?
Thanks to the rest of you for your amazingly helpful input!
LISA, your idea of using this opening and then going back is a possibility. I’ll think about it, though I’ve heard flashbacks actually slow down the action too much to be useful, especially at the beginning.
CARRIE, your comment about “great” meaning “good” is very helpful. I’ll try and fix that. Though my characters would have considered him great, you’re right, he’s not a good guy. As for other world leaders, we’re not very far into the future (2025ish), and he’s the first GLOBAL world leader (the anti-Christ in biblical terms) I think I need to clarify that. And he does not do the blowing up, though the characters think he has. His “blowing up” coincidentally comes at the same time as Jesus’ return to re-make everything.
PAM: The POV is objective–good observation–and my nanosecond comment might be author intrusion. I’ll have to study that possiblity. I used objective POV in this chapter because I wanted to develop my main character from outside his POV, hoping that might make him more mysterious and intriguing, thus solving Donald Maass’ objection. I don’t think it worked, but I think Randy’s idea will. When I do the re-write this problem will probably disappear. I hope.
CAMILLE: I love you! You’re so supportive. And I can’t wait to see your book in print! I like chocolate e-cake.
BONNIE: Good insight. Inside the character’s head it will be. And thanks for the “cabin” comment. I had the same reaction to the word (!) but not sure how to fix it.
BONNIE F: Exactly. But I think the reason I’ve had such a hard time coming up with a good beginning (the rest of the novel is wonderful! lol) is because I haven’t yet started back far enough. It doesn’t work to start with this “bang” without more background. There’s too much the readers don’t know yet that they need to. But I’m excited now about making that background information interesting enough to hook the readers. I wonder what would be different about juvenile audiences? Hmm.
BARBARA: Yes, it would work I think. Good advice. I’ll work at putting tension in the pre-bang scenes.
FAY: Thanks for your insight. I’ll do it. And thanks for saying you’d buy the book!
JULIE: Thanks to you too. I hope it’s high concept. I’m not sure yet.
You’re all wonderfully helpful. I’m glad I found you.
Stephanie Rising says
I really don’t know what’s going on here, but I would read on a bit to find out.
Seeing the improvement in Camile and Daan’s paragraphs is really exciting.
Thanks for fleshing out show and tell, yet again. Sigh.
Sorry, I didn’t realize there was a 50 word limit.
Randy, if it’s possible, would you use this revision, now sitting on 50 words.
‘Mum!’ Rissa yelled as her mum ran up the staircase. ‘It’s just a photo album!’
Rissa spun to confront her dad. ‘You’re the one that got us into this.’
The knuckles of his hands whitened as he tipped his head back and shouted up the stairs, ‘Lauren, it’s nearly sunset!’
Ginny: “…the instant re-making of the world that happens when Christ returns to set up His new kingdom.”
Wow. I wasn’t expecting that.
Kinda took my breath away.
Ginny Jaques says
IAIN: Was it a good taking your breath away? Or too much of a shock?
Sina'i Enantia says
Ginny, I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said, but I do have an example of a book (that I thought was done well, at least) where the prologue is set later in the story than the beginning.
In Jennifer Robison’s Lady of the Forest, the prologue is actually a scene that occurs closer to the end of the book. (The book is another retelling of the Robin Hood legend, btw. And also, it’s been a little while since I actually read it, so hopefully, I’m not screwing up the details too much.) The scene in question is one where Marian has been captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham, William de Lacey, who is trying to convince her to marry him, and takes place in his dungeon.
This scene is very dark and intense. It’s not a high action scene – it’s about emotion, specifically courage, I think. I can’t quite remember if the scene actually gets repeated in the main story or not – I don’t think it does. We also, of course, see the events that happened after the prologue scene, and we know exactly where the prologue fits into the story. But after the prologue, we go back in time to where the story began, with Marian going to a feast. I don’t believe it’s a flashback, really, though I don’t know what else to call it. Perhaps the prologue is considered a scene out of time?
Ginny Jaques says
SINA’I: I see what you’re saying. I could make the bang scene a prologue, then go back to before the event. I’ll think about it. But somehow it seems it wouldn’t work as well if I didn’t go far back (like in the book you describe). I’m thinking of going back to just a few hours before the bang to do some character development, with some tension, as Barbara suggested. It’s a thought though.
Sina'i Enantia says
Oh, I did mean to add: I figure it’s entirely possible that this works for Lady of the Forest because of the type of novel it is – historical fiction (or legendarical fiction, as I like to call it – although I think that term changes almost every time I use it). It’s got a decent amount of action, but it’s not fast-paced, high tech action – no helicopters blowing up here.
And from what I’ve seen of it, it looks like your novel is NOT a historically based novel, and that this might not work for you. Anyway, it was just an example.
Sina'i Enantia says
Sorry, didn’t see your comment until after I’d posted a second time.
For some reason, I’m really bad at sticking everything I want to say into one comment. I end up posting a dollar’s worth of thoughts, then realizing I forgot something, and adding in another two cents…
Ginny Jaques says
SINA’I: Your two cents is worth a lot more than that.