It’s been interesting to read the comments over the last couple of days. Sunday night, I critiqued Ginny’s first paragraph. (More on that in a minute.) Monday night, I went to a local writer’s group meeting (and got to see one my loyal blog readers, Camille, in person instead of on-screen) but got home too late to blog. Today I’ve been working on a special project on a tight deadline, so haven’t checked in to the blog until just now. In the meantime, my loyal blog readers have been busy making comments here. A few responses before I critique Dale.
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.
Randy sez: Yes, I’m working on a proposal now. Actually, the proposal is done and my agent loves it, but I’m still polishing up the first few chapters. Things are going slower than I’d like, because of course I’m doing a LOT of teaching these days, and also have some other projects going on that I consider important. That’s one reason I work so hard at managing my time better (not to mention managing that pesky money).
Ginny wrote, in response to my critique of her paragraph:
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 TECHNICAL, 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?
Randy sez: OK, that’s a bit of an unexpected twist. It’s quite possible for physics to get screwed up and change everything, and that would be something like an explosion. It would presumably move at the speed of light. Physicists years ago did consider the question of whether some sort of phase transition could happen that would propagate at the speed of light, throwing us into a different vacuum and thoroughly rearranging reality in the process. That’s a disaster! But it’s not much of a story, because no characters would survive it.
In your case, you’re not talking about a nuclear explosion, but neither is it exactly a phase transtion to a new vacuum. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m wondering if it’s limited to earth, and if so, why? If it can extend out into space, then it would presumably whack our heroes in the space ship at roughly the same time the cutoff in the transmission happens. (That pesky speed of light again.) I would say you can do whatever you want here, but just figure out the rules and be consistent.
Now, on to critiquing Dale’s first paragraph:
Jeremy Crowther turned the corner onto Freeman Drive and saw his house for the first time in a year. His first thought was that nothing had changed. The same cracks ran down the edges of the same beige stucco walls. The same wet magnolia leaves overflowed the same sagging, moldy gutters. The same brown patches of dirt fought the same brown patches of grass for control of the same brown yard.
Randy sez: This is very good! We are in Jeremy’s head from the get-go. There is no cheating here–Dale is not withholding information from us. But he’s doling it out to us at a speed that makes us want more. That’s not easy to do. It’s very easy to tell too much or too little at the start of a story. Let’s look at what we know:
1) We know Jeremy’s been away for a year.
2) We know the house isn’t in great shape.
3) We know Jeremy knows he’s not going to win any Architectural Digest awards.
4) In short, Jeremy is a very ordinary-sounding guy, except for that missing year that’s been mysteriously taken out of his life.
But we don’t know why he’s been gone. That’s good. It arouses the reader’s curiosity in a natural way. This is a hard balance to strike, and Dale struck it well. If I opened this book in a bookstore, I’d absolutely read the whole first chapter. This is good writing, and I can’t see one single thing to gripe about.
Notice Dale’s use of “The Rule of Three” here. “The Rule of Three” says that if you’re going to repeat something, say it three times, not just twice. If you say it twice, it feels like you made a mistake. When you say it three times, it’s clear you meant it. Dale has three sentences that start with “The same . . .” It has a good strong rhythm to it.
Dale, you get an A for this paragraph.
Daan Van der Merwe says
Great stuff Dale! And thank you Randy, for that “The Rule of Three”.
I don’t know why but apparently the bookstore owners in Pretoria are tougher than those in Washington. They won’t even allow me to read one page in the store. They would demand that I either buy the book or get to Pluto out of their store! I would love to buy it Dale, and this is not a snowjob.
Here’s a thing (and I am dead serious). About seven years ago I began reading “The Seventh Scroll” by Wilbur Smith. On page 7 I was so bored, I closed the book and never opened it again. I’m not knocking W.S. I enjoyed a lot of his novels.
So Dale, Good luck. I root for you.
Way to go Dale! Not only descriptive but the description is so atmospheric. And because you said the first thought was as if nothing has changed then I know lots has changed. Mmmm, are you layering with Freeman Drive? 🙂
Daan Van der Merwe says
Hi Randy, I just post this from my new e-mail address to see if it needs moderation, as I suspect it will. 🙂
David McKee says
I hope I am not being too picky, as I think the paragraph is great, however I did notice the the first two of the three “The same…” sentences each contained only 2 “the same” contrasts, while the third contained 3. Is this a problem with the meter of the paragraph? To me that last “the same brown yard” just seems a bit overkill on the use of “the same”…
Lois Hudson says
I was hooked when I read this the first day, and am still hooked!
In addition to the clues, the setting, the atmosphere, I think Dale is showing us something about Jeremy’s spirit – the “same brownness” has invaded his spirit as well which gives a hint of personal inner conflict that will have to be resolved within this same brown setting.
Reminds me of Michener!
Kudos, Dale! I really did want to read more. Why has he been away for a year? Why has nothing changed? And why do these things matter (because I suspect they do)?
Bonnie Grove says
What I noticed when I first read this paragraph was how it invoked an emotional response in me. As I read I began to feel “heavier”, I may have even let out a sigh just thinking about the “same ‘ol, same ‘ol”.
It’s a successful paragraph in terms of the emotion button it hits, and that’s always a good thing.
One weensy thing, I wonder if you would want to re-write the last sentence of the paragraph so that it begins with “The Same. . .” but loses the second “the same” in that sentence? It would probably mean changing a bunch of words, but, in my opinion, would make the sentence stronger.
Well done Dale! I hope it goes well with your story!
This is so cool….I love this kind of stuff!!!
Randy mentioned rhythm. I love it when writing mechanics adds to the reader’s experience. In Dale’s sample (awesome, I was waiting for this one) not only do you get a sense of ‘sameness’ in the actual word choices themselves, but the rhythm of the repeated threes (same, brown) adds to the monotony of what Jeremy is feeling. The reader’s first obvious question is Why and Where has Jeremy been for a year? But the underlying question is What is the reason for this feeling of monotony? You’ve set up his mood so well right from the start. Dude!
My question to Randy and the blog: It’s so easy for us to see what works and doesn’t work AFTER Randy points it out and we can simply agree (or disagree if we dare). But I wonder how insightful we students would be without hearing Randy’s take on it first?
If Randy is willing, is anyone brave enough to let the blog practice critiquing your paragraph before Randy does?
Mary Hake says
I agree that it’s intriguing. I wondered if he’d been in prison–his name reminds me of crowbar and the Freeman Drive surely was not chosen randomly. But if this continues in the same vein much longer I’d get bored and put it down. I’m ready for some action/interaction. Didn’t he have anyone to care for his house in his absence? Is it sumbolic of his life?
Mary Hake says
I hate typos. Thought I’d written symbolic. My heart off-rhythm sometimes affects my sight and brain function.
M.L. Eqatin says
on the other hand, Mary, ‘sumbolic’ has a nice invented-word feel to it. Maybe Freud was behind that slip.
I agree with Mary Hake: I’m very intrigued by the 1-year hook but I’m not going to wait too long to find out at least another clue why. For some reason, I get the impression it’s not about the house so much as the person in the house…?
This line: The same wet magnolia leaves overflowed the same sagging, moldy gutters.
It gives me the subtle impression of a woman who was once a bombshell and now she’s sagging in every way and the guy’s not so much afraid of the house as her. I have no idea if that’s what you intended or even if it has anything to do with the story to come, but it’s the impression I feel in reading that paragraph. (And I’m probably completely wrong, but I still want to read on!) Great job!
On the Rule of Three: I never knew it had a name but I’ve found it also works in the negative. I had a scene where my POV character needed to feel the shock and chaos in the middle of a crowd, so I used a lot of one-two type rythms. It made it really jarring and captured some of the disorientation I needed. Crazy how a little rhythm can make or break a scene.
I would be happy to let the blog readers practice on my paragraph. I have found it very interesting how many different suggestions and ideas come from many voices.
My first attempt was posted, but after reading the advice on the first few paragraph submissions, my revised attempt was:
We were invincible.
We were a group of High School seniors who felt we could get away with whatever we wanted; because we always did. Driving around in our parent’s cars; buying beer underage; sneaking friends out of their houses in the middle of the night. We never got caught no matter how crazy or stupid we got. Until that night we witnessed something horrible – and the police came to my door.
Lois Hudson says
What a great word — “sumbolic”!
I think Camille’s suggestion might be a good exercise, to see how much we’ve learned to watch for from Randy’s examples.
(Unless it makes more work for Randy in critiquing the critiques!) I think most of us are already mentally, or perhaps even actually, rewriting what we posted, based on what we’re learning.
Again our thanks, Randy.
Ginny Jaques says
DALE: I humbly disagree with those who would want you to change your “same”s. I love them all. I love the threesome of the first three “same” sentences, with three “same”s in the last of the three sentences for emphasis. That one last “same” just puts the icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned. I hope you don’t change a thing. And I’m still wanting to go out and buy the book.
Dale Emery says
Thanks Randy and all for your comments!
From a number of comments (Randy’s and others’), I’m thinking that I may need to insert one more bit of information into that first paragraph. Maybe: “His first thought was that nothing had changed since he ran away.”
This is a (minor) dilemma for me. On one hand, I want to give readers the right mental image of Jeremy right away, so they aren’t jarred when they realize he’s younger than they thought. On the other hand, those additional four words slightly weaken the rhythm of the sentence, and of the paragraph.
I’m sure I can solve this, now that your feedback has pointed out the problem.
yeggy: Thanks! Atmosphere was a big concern as I revised that paragraph.
yeggy and Mary: I didn’t consciously intend any connotations with “Freeman,” but who knows what my intuition was up to. In the first draft (written in a white heat during NaNoWriMo 2006), I wrote the first street name that popped into my head: Cherry Lane. Bleah!
David and Bonnie: The third sentence includes a “rule of three” within it. Somehow that felt right to me. I understand what you mean by overkill. Still, to me it feels right. What you’re experiencing as overkill, I’m experiencing as a clear sign that we’ve reached the end of this “sameness” thing (for the moment) and it’s time to move on. And though I like the rhythm of the paragraph overall, I agree that the rhythm could be better at the end. My fear is that if I tinker with it, I’ll make it worse instead of better. But I’ll play a bit and see what happens.
Patricia: The “nothing has changed” thing is a setup. In another 200 words or so, Jeremy’s world will hit the fan. (See below for links to the whole scene.) The arrival of October marks a year since he ran away, and the passing of a full year was part of what finally motivated him to return home. And Sacramento in October is brown brown brown. Or for you optimists: golden. And maybe there’s more here — some images and symbolism to weave into the story — I’m not sure yet.
Lois, Bonnie, and Camille: Oh, good! That sense of mild-to-medium heaviness is just what I was shooting for. Rhythm and atmosphere are not something I’m naturally good at, and I put a lot of conscious attention to that from first draft to second.
Cate: Yes, you’ll know more about why he was away in another sixty words or so (unless I tuck it into the first paragraph as I mentioned above). As for the saggy woman… Interesting that you should mention that. Jeremy is about to see his mother for the first time in a year.
And I like your idea of thwarting the rule of three to tip the reader off balance and create that sense of chaos.
Again, thanks all for your very helpful feedback!
You can read both drafts of the first scene on my fiction blog:
1st draft: http://tinyurl.com/5umn4s
2nd draft: http://tinyurl.com/6ffu3b
As for the whole book, y’all (and I) are gonna hafta wait. My first draft ending is complete dreck, and I haven’t figured out a better one yet.
Lois Hudson says
Dale, I did have the feeling of an older man coming back into the home scene. But I don’t think you necessarily have to put the boy into the first paragraph. It can come out in the next. Sometimes trying to get it “all” into the first paragraph drains it of its drama. I’m off to read your drafts now. Good work.
Ginny Jaques says
DALE: I posted some remarks about your paragraph in the first “link” (is this the proper term for the individual topic postings?) of this series, Submit Your First Paragraph, but I’m not sure you would have noticed it there. I’m confused about where to post replies–at the bottom of the link that discusses the particular piece you’re commenting on? Or at the end of the last link, posting, regardless of topic, in a continuous stream?? Any suggestions?
Karla Akins says
Randy, I have a question. What is the difference between a sub plot and plot layering? Thanks in advance.
Ginny Jaques says
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?