Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writing 101: Page Critique - Vintagegirl


Every Thursday the Writing 101 crew, Michael and Lauren, will critique a page from a novel. If you'd like your page critiqued, please fill out the Writing 101: Page Critique Form. We have submissions queued up but are still posting just one page a week, so if you've submitted but haven't seen your page yet, don't panic! ;) Stay tuned. Also, you can read the previous submission.

First we present the page without comment:

Author: vintagegirl
Title: Fitz
Genre: Contemporary YA
1st Page (293 words)
 
After her death, it snowed for the first time in years. 
It was the first September morning and the sun had hidden behind thick layers of mist and wet snow. Alex Emerson watched it from his bed as he tried to rid his head of thoughts and feelings. It was easy enough not to think, but much harder to get rid of the void that filled his stomach. Trying to concentrate on the falling flakes and figuring out why they were white didn’t help, either. 
Nothing helped. Everything reminded him of her. 
Her name had been Beth. Beth Farlow. Mrs. Farlow, whom he had never really known, had come round their house a day after it had happened. Her eyes had been bloodshot cracks in her face when she asked him why her daughter had to die at seventeen. Because she had, for one second, been careless in crossing the railroad tracks. He hadn’t told her that a train had hit Beth Farlow because she had thrown herself in front of it. Because she had thought that seventeen was seventeen years too many to live. 
He had been in his bed ever since it happened three days ago. His mother had gone through his room, taking away all sharp objects and things that could be turned into sharp objects. So that his room was a safe haven where he couldn’t hurt himself. So that he was stuck inside his own isolated hell, feeling nothing and unable to get rid of the constant need to do what Beth did.
He hadn’t gone to school. He intended not to until everyone had forgotten about Beth and gone back to their stupid lives. Or at least until they had gotten the ridiculous memorial service over with.

What say you, readers of Paper Hangover? Did this first page intrigue you enough to read on? Please keep your criticisms constructive. Always be polite and considerate of the writer. 

Michael's and Lauren's line by line edits and then our overall comments after the jump.



After her death, it snowed for the first time in years. 
It was the first September morning. and the The sun had hidden hid behind thick layers of mist and wet snow.
New Paragraph. Alex Emerson watched it from his bed as he tried trying to rid his head of thoughts and feelings. It was He found it easy enough not to think, but much harder to get rid of ignore the void that filled a void can’t fill anything. in his stomach. Trying to concentrate Concentrating on the falling flakes and figuring out wondering why they were white didn’t help, either. Interesting. Has he not seen snow before?

Nothing helped. Everything reminded him of her Beth Farlow. Could you be a little more specific about what reminded him of her? Consider mentioning at least one concrete thing that the reader can see that reminds him of her. This will give you an opportunity to work in some description and ground the reader in the scene a little more.

Her name had been Beth. Cut this sentence for redundancy. Mrs. Farlow, whom he had never really known, had come round their house a day after it had happened. Her eyes had been were bloodshot cracks in her face I like this description. when she asked him why her daughter had to die at seventeen. Because she had, for one second, been careless in crossing the railroad tracks. He hadn’t told her that a train had hit Beth Farlow because she had thrown herself in front of it. Because she had thought that seventeen was seventeen years too many to live.

He had been in his bed might want to choose a stronger verb here to convey his feelings about beth’s death. Perhaps something like: He’d clung to the comfort of his warm bed ever since it happened three days ago. His mother had gone through his room, taking away all sharp objects and things that could be turned into sharp objects. So that his room was a safe haven where he couldn’t hurt himself. So that he was stuck trapped? inside his own isolated hell, feeling nothing If he’s feeling nothing, why is there a constant desire  to commit suicide like Beth? That tells me that he’s feeling something: pain/sadness/loss. Then there’s this sentence: “Alex Emerson watched it from his bed as he tried to rid his head of thoughts and feelings.” unable to get rid of the constant need desire/urge? to do what Beth did.

He hadn’t gone to school. He intended not to until everyone had forgotten about Beth and gone back to their stupid lives. Or at least until they had gotten the ridiculous memorial service over with.


Michael’s comments: I was intrigued by the opening sentence, but the story came to a halt for me beyond the first two paragraphs because it turns into a trip down Flashback Lane. Some of that backstory the reader doesn’t need to know yet, if at all.

There are 35 uses of the word “had” in this first page alone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the word “had”, but when they add up like this in such a short span, it brings the story to a grinding halt because the scene is taking place in the past. The majority of your scenes, especially opening scenes, should be taking place in the “present”. The reader wants to know what’s happening “now”.

In order to keep a reader locked onto the page, the story must remain in the “present” for quite some time before dipping into the past. If backstory in an opening is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what is going on, then as a last resort, try to filter it through the POV character (it might be wise to this regardless).

One way to convey backstory is to quickly get it out the way simply by stating the facts but blending it in with the present story.

Example:

“Everything reminded him of his best friend Beth Farlow: her sketches of dragons resting on his nightstand, the ticket stub from the last movie they saw together, the stupid chewing gum wrapper she never to threw away.

He swept his arm across his nightstand, knocking all the wonderful memories into the trashcan. That’s exactly what she did to their friendship when she jumped in front of that train. Three days ago she tossed it all away like garbage. Seventeen didn’t seem like it was too many years to live until now.”

And then get it on with the present story. What is Alex doing at this moment in time, right now? Give him something to do. The above example is in my writing voice. And without knowing the rest of the chapter/story it may not be appropriate. It’s merely to give you an idea of how you can blend information with present thoughts and actions. You would, of course, have to rewrite it in your own voice using your knowledge of the story/characters.

Other concerns--Was Beth Alex’s girlfriend or were they just best friends? It seems as if they were close, but I’m not completely sure what their relationship is. Some readers might need to know how close they were in order to get a better gage on how we should feel about this death. If they were best friends, mention that. If they were dating, mention that. If they weren’t really close at all, mention that, but then the reader is going to want to know why he cares so much. So, you would have to mention why that is in that instance.


Lauren’s comments: Every time I start a new story I make the same mistake. “Going to start the story at this spot! Now let me quickly explain how we got to this point.” It seems like that’s the trap you’ve fallen into here. The main character has just gone through a horrible emotional event, and you’re summing it up for the reader in past perfect tense--it’s done, it’s over. I don’t feel any tension when I read this. I’m not sure why Beth is special, to Alex or to me as a reader. I don’t see where the story can go from here, since it seems like Alex’s life is over already.

I don’t doubt that there is much more to your story than that. But before I can be invested, I need to have a little idea of what’s in store. Is the lack of sharp objects really the only thing that’s keeping Alex alive? What else motivates him? Does he want to carry on for his family, his friends? Is there some question surrounding Beth’s death, or something left unresolved between the two of them, that he needs to figure out?

Numbness is a realistic response to loss, but unfortunately it usually doesn’t endear readers to your characters. Like Michael pointed out, if Alex were truly feeling nothing, he wouldn’t want to end his life. So you’ve got something to grab onto there. Can you describe what Alex is going through in terms of what’s inside him rather than what’s not (i.e. a void)?

What is Alex doing in this scene? It doesn’t have to be an action, necessarily, to be active. But I like having something concrete, no matter how small, in an opening to sort of anchor me.

To summarize, in order to get the most out of this scene, I would suggest you:
1. cut down on the flashbacks,
2. make Alex’s emotions more vivid,
3. give us enough detail about Beth to know why he cares,
4. let us know what’s happening in the present and what might happen in the future.

That sounds like a lot, but again, I believe you have all the material you need--it’s just a matter of bringing it to the surface. :)

8 comments:

Emy Shin said...

You two always give the most AMAZING critiques that I don't really have anything else to add.

Good luck to vintagegirl with the ms! :)

Marquita Hockaday said...

I am intrigued with this story. I'd want to know more, especially if the changes you two suggested are made. Great work on critiquing this...maybe I should be hitting you all up to BETA read for me :D

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

Thank you for the kind words, Emy. Not everyone is going to have something to add, and that's fine. No worries. No pressure. ;)

One of the reasons we chose to post our comments after a break was because we were hoping that "pause" would allow everyone to formulate their own critiques before they read ours.

I hope that readers of the blog benefit from these critiques as well, whether by picking up new critiquing techniques or seeing their own work in a new light because of something that was pointed out in one of these submissions.

And yes, best regards to vintagegirl!

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

I'll BETA read for you, Marquita. Just say the word. :)

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