Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Mania--first page

One of our readers submitted the first page of a novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0017:

The Gatekeeper
The Education of Darny Switch

It was getting late. The shadows were deepening in the corners of his room and an oppressive heat hung in the air of the little attic of Darny Switch. He'd just finished his day of cleaning up other people's messes, and had come home to be yelled at by Mrs. Whippet for forgetting to pick up her laundry.

It had not been a good day. He plopped down on his bed and started reading the latest Harry Potter book. It had just come out and he had been waiting forever for his turn to check it out of the local library.

He opened the new cover and got a whiff of that lovely new book smell. It was still there. The pages crackled as he turned the first one. He loved the Harry Potter stories. He felt alive when he read them and lost in a world that was so entertaining and seemed so real. He had dreamed of living in such a world. Of walking down the halls of Hogworts. But the thing he most liked about the stories was that it was his story too. He had no parents, and had been left with people who didn't want him. But stories of high adventure don't happen to real boys. Stories like that are made up by great minds.

Real life was what Darny was living. He looked up at his closet door. Sometimes it would creak as he lay in bed. He would shut the door and still he swore he could hear it open as he lay there in the dark. He would close his eyes and will himself to fall asleep. He thought if he opened them, he would see something standing there and he had no magic spells to make it disappear. He was terrified of being alone up in his hot room, but he had no choice and no one felt sorry for him.


Charlie Moore said...

I am not a member of this group blog, but I would like to respond. The thing standing out to me in these first few chapters is voice. I noticed it (the passive voice) because it is one of my own writing weaknesses. It is also easily corrected. In the first paragraph, instead of It was getting late. The shadows were deepening in the corners of his room and an oppressive heat hung in the air of the little attic of Darny Switch; maybe consider, Darny Switch fumed at the oppressive heat. Deepening shadows told Darcy of the day's late hour; his job cleaning other people's messes made him thankful for the shadows. In the other paragraphs watch out for starters like It had. This sounds like it could develop into an exciting story. My comments are only meant to be suggestions. Please take them as such. I realized I'm not known to this blog (forum), but please allow me to say I am published with one novel (Andrea's Dream, PublishAmerica and ten plus digital publications via Amazon Shorts.

Charlie Moore, Idaho
pen name, Joshua Berry

Annette Lyon said...

My gut reaction is that the beginning of story is someplace else. As a reader, I want to see something happening--NOW. I want the main character to be in a situation with conflict, doing something. The "in medias res" concept. The backstory and characterization can wait until later, when you've already hooked the reader.

I struggle with where to start my books every time!

Julie Wright said...

I agree with both Charlie and Annette. What we have here is a lot of telling and very little showing (I remember hating seeing those words on creative writing assignments in school, because I always believed I WAS showing). Instead of telling us Mrs. Whippet yelled at him for not getting her laundry, show us. Give us the dialogue. Let us see the situation as it unfolds. This puts us directly in the action, as Annette suggested, and makes the scene more immediate and interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

I really loved reading your comments on my story. I want you to know that. I have always loved to read but had never written before. I just started last spring.

I don't know the rules or the ropes. I have just been accepted to a writing course which I am very excited about.

I want to know how and what to improve. I really want someone to publish this story and anything you can suggest to make it better is greatly appreciated.

I wish you could critique the whole thing but at the moment, I just don't have the money to spend but thank you, thank you, thank you!

Heather B. Moore said...

Great fixes, Charlie. This forum is in no way closed--we just ask that comments be constructive so we don't turn into other writing blogs that are that way. So thank you. My first impression was "telling" as well. Don't worry, Anon, this is what we all do in our first attempts. But sometimes it's important to get the story "told", then to go back on the second draft and bring it to life. Think a movie--and all the description, the emotion, the small things that characterize, and the five senses of course.

David G. Woolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie Moore said...

Thank you, Heather. I enjoy visiting the LDS based blogs (for both writing feedback and spirituality) and occasionally offerring comments.

David, your commentary helps everybody who reads it and follows your advice. Your post was filled with needed information that I, too, didn't get enough of when I first started writing.


David G. Woolley said...

I'll take a stab only because I wish, when I was in your shoes, someone would have taken the time to give me some feedback.

Passive voice selections, like Charlie mentioned, make your writing tentative. If you change the following to less passive choices you will see immediate improvement in your writing.

1. had come home to be yelled
2. had not been a good day
3. had been waiting forever
4. had dreamed of living in such a world.
5. had no parents, and had been left with people who didn't want him.
6. He would shut the door
7. he would see something standing there
8. he had no magic spells to make it disappear.

The passive voice disappears when you write an immediate scene. Instead of writing:

He'd just finished his day of cleaning up other people's messes, and had come home to be yelled at by Mrs. Whippet for forgetting to pick up her laundry.

Create an immediate scene with Mrs. Whippet present and you solve your passive voice dilemma. In this example notice how “he’d never hear the end” acts as a figure of speech rather than a passive voice, in this case a cliché that is so overused it describes how Darny feels about Mrs. Whippet, that her yelling is overused, that he is underappreciated, that their relationship is cliché. Something like:

"Danny? Where are you boy?" The screeching voice of Mrs. Whippet trailed up around the circular stair case, along the narrow stone hallway, and past the ladder leading to the attic. Not again. Danny edged the attic door closed and latched himself inside. If she found out he was home without picking up her laundry he'd never hear the end.

The fading light of sundown streaming through the roof vent was just enough to fetch the book from his knapsack, settle in against the rough hewn wood support beams and lose himself among the wizards and muggles of Hogwarts. It was here, after the long work day was finished, where he escaped the tiring hours of threshing hay and lost himself in the world he loved.

When you write in the omniscient voice as you've done in this passage with the author directly telling the story to the reader you end up trapped using a passive voice. The omniscient editor can't, with any certainty, tell the reader what the character is feeling, thinking, hoping, hiding, conspiring, dreaming or desiring. Instead, you end up using phrases that are tentative. Tentative writing is boring writing. "Apparently he was a bit afraid of the bloodied knife" doesn't have near the clarity or power as, say, "The bloodied knife filled him with horror."

This second “horror-filled” attempt at telling an emotion is stronger than the first, but both are terrible, both tell the emotion. Telling the emotion happens a number of times in this Darny Switch opening.

1. He loved the Harry Potter Stories.
2. He felt alive when he read them
3. He had dreamed of living in such a world
4. He was terrified of being alone

In each of these instances we’re told an emotion. That’s not a good thing. What is good, however, is that whenever you tell an emotion your inner muse is telling you that here is a plot waiting to be developed. You could develop a scene around Darny’s love for Harry Potter. You could also include the feeling of being alive in that same love-for-Harry-Potter scene. Have Darny run down a hill with the book. Swing from a tree with the book. Climb to the summit of a mountain with the book. Risk his life, but not die to preserve the book which would act as a metaphor for life and feeling alive. You could develop a dream scene about living in a Harry Potter world. Even better, you could have Darny interact with characters from the Harry Potter books that no one else sees but Darny. Is he going crazy? Or is his imagination so vivid that he has a hard time distinguishing between what he’s imagining and reality. Darny could drop his new library book from a bridge over a river and risk his life to save it from a watery grave. That would certainly show his love for the book. It would also meet the criteria for a bad day that the author mentions in the first sentence of the second paragraph.

Don’t jettison your told emotions right away. Use them as a list, a starting point, a place where you can glean a scene, a chapter, a plot line or a theme for your writing. It’s your job to develop the ones that work for your story and jettison the others.

Some authors use a rather cheap way of getting around the telling of an emotion. The best fix is to tell your entire story deeply rooted in the voice, mind and soul of the character. If you haven't done that, then you use a quick fix like this:

"The bloodied knife sent her heart racing."

From that phrase we're supposed to infer that the character is afraid, maybe even terrified. Its description used to convey an emotion. And it’s a good technique to use. But it may also point out some other weaknesses like poor voice. I don’t know how many manuscripts I’ve read where the author, stuck unwittingly in a quasi-omniscient voice, peppers the page with descriptions of how the character reacts to seeing a bloodied knife. Heart racing. Throws up. Runs away. Lots of sweating. Even more profuse sweating. When the author is very much present in the writing, seeing everything for and in behalf of the character, describing the setting, telling the story or telling an emotion or telling a thought is taboo, so the author ends up with a lot of cheap tricks to get around the rule.

It’s much better if the reader is prepared, through the voice of the character and elements of foreshadowing, to be afraid when they see the bloodied knife and immediately infers elements of the story that would not be a normal reader reaction except for the fact that the author has prepared the reader to react in just such a way. Instead of sweating, running away or throwing up, something like this reaction to the bloody knife may be totally consistent with this particular story but no other story, and it will draw your reader deeper into the story.

The bloodied knife lay on the floor next to the muggle. Dear no, the ghost of Harry Potter had returned.

Which brings up the interior dialogue problem. In my most recent published work the editor, thinking that she was helping the interior dialogue changed this:

Did he really love her?

To this:

Did he really lover her, she wondered?

She trashed the interior dialogue. You simply don’t need to tell the reader when the character is wondering or thinking something. If they are wondering something, simply do what I did and change it into a question. If you’re character voice is strong, the reader will know who is wondering the question. And if they’re thinking something, make sure you prepare the reader for the thought and then carefully lay it into the character’s consciousness. In this passage you wrote:

He would close his eyes and will himself to fall asleep. He thought if he opened them, he would see something standing there and he had no magic spells to make it disappear.

The first sentence prepares the reader to receive the character thought. And then you tell us that your character is thinking the thought. Better to write it something like this:

Darny closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep. If he opened them, would he see Voldemort standing at the foot of his bed and Darny without a single memorized spell to turn the wizard into a muggle?

I'm not certain where you're going with this story, but in order to write a great opening, you must include the end in the beginning. If you don't know the end, then write what you can and move on. Once the end is known, go back and rewrite the beginning by including the ending. Far too many authors are afraid to do this. They think that the ending is something that should be hidden from the reader and revealed toward the end of the novel. The ending should guide your opening. Whispers and foreshadows of "Don't be surprised if this happens" should pepper the opening of your novel. Is there some bit of magic that will come to Darny Switch and allow him to experience Harry Potteresque adventure? If so, make sure that magic is foreshadowed in the opening. I am in the midst of writing an entire series and the opening novel of five hundred pages acts as a foreshadow for every other of the 8 novels in the series, so that when the reader reads each successive novel, they will say, deep in their soul somewhere, that they knew it was going to turn out that way. And when they go back and read the first novel in the series, they’ll begin to recognize things they didn’t see the first time. That’s true with good movies. Its true with good books. And it may even be true with 8 volume series.

Do you really need Harry Potter? Will you be branded a copy-cat writer by using Harry Potter? Can you tell your adventure story, your personal triumph story, your coming of age story, or your fantasy story without Harry Potter?

Here are my suggestions:

1. Rewrite this scene to include the end in the beginning. There should be tons of foreshadowing in your opening that will foreshadow the entire novel, the theme, the major plots lines, etc. An experienced author should be able to read your opening and decipher the genre, where you're heading and figure out some of the major plots lines.

2. Rewrite this scene to deeply root it in the voice of your view point character. Get rid of the omniscient editor voice as much as possible and let us be this boy.

3. Remove the passive, tentative word choices and give us some direct, precise, confident writing. Even when you are writing about a shy, passive character, much of your writing should be confident about their lack of confidence.

4. Learn how to use interior dialogue to good effect and jettison those speaker attributions for your character’s thoughts like “He thought” or “She wondered.” Not only should you not use them because they are reserved for when the character is actually, physically speaking, but you should avoid them because they get in the way of the voice of the character, and, sadly, they mark your writing as that of an amateur.

Wow. Sorry to go on like this. Good luck with your writing.

David G. Woolley

David G. Woolley said...

One more word about immediate scenes. Referring to characters does not bring them on scene. Referring to a characters habbits does not not bring them physically onto the stage. Referring to the sound of their voice, the color of their hair, their goofy jokes, their height, their vactaion to Hawaii last year, none of that brings them physically into the scene.

In order for your character to become part of an immediate scene you must first create a setting. You can do that economically by introducing your character in the setting, speaking, acting, moving about, thinking, dealing with a problem, etc.

It is a little old school to spend pages of writing creating a setting before introducing your charcter(s) into the setting. Better to set the scene, introduce the characters, foreshadow, introduce compelling plot lines and begin the characters reaction to those inital plot lines simultanously. It takes a little more work, a little more inventiveness, and a little more re-writing, but the end result of what I call "simultenous" writing is worth a thousand published novels.

Let's hear it for immediate scenes. Now go away everyone. I have to get back to work finishing decks, painting walls, landscaping houses and earning some real money. Not this goofy stuff we call writing.