Monday, October 22, 2012


Popular book doctor Jason Black returns to critique the first five pages of another submission from a GFW Writers member's work in progress. The author of the work below chooses to remain anonymous. However the member's responses to the critique are inserted .

 “Marti, I need tranquility and you need excitement.”

[The clear contrast in this opening line suggests a deep conflict between these two people, but emotionally, the line feels a little flat. I don’t get a strong sense of how the speaker feels about this observation. Is she upset? Resigned? It’s hard to tell, and I believe that without the emotional component, the line will have trouble hooking readers.]

That’s when the trouble began. Life can be that way.  It can change in ways you didn’t see coming. Kevin moved in with Miss Tranquility and got excitement. Then I was the one who needed peace and tranquility.

[This is confusing, because I don’t know who the speaker was for the original line. I can’t sort out how Kevin, Marti, and “I” relate, nor which one (if any) “Miss Tranquility” corresponds to. The “I need tranquility” part  suggests that “Miss Tranquility” is the same as the opening line’s speaker. But Kevin moving in with her, resulting in “then I was the one who needed peace and tranquility” suggests that “I” isn’t the same as “Miss Tranquility.” It’s confusing!]
This is what occurs when you take the advice of too many critiquers. The original sentence read, "The trouble started when my ex-husband Kevin said he wanted tranquility and I, Marti Webb, wanted excitement. Still a problem getting the MC's name into the beginning.
 But it’s a bit more complicated.  That’s only part of the reason for working in Conawee Beach, S.C. away from friends and family. The other was my inability to see the downsizing coming in my former department any more than I had seen evidence of Kevin’s cheating.
[Ok, this brings some clarity. Makes me think that unfaithful Kevin left the narrator for “Miss Tranquility,” he somehow got excitement instead, and in the process threw the narrator’s life into turmoil.]

Thinking my wealth of experience would count for something didn’t help .
[Wordy. Try just “My wealth of experience didn’t count for anything.”]

What I got was a severance package, a pat on the back and months later, welcome to Conawee Beach.

[To me, sentences which use a double-and construction like this one always feel a little awkward. Consider splitting the “months later” part off into a new sentence, which would allow you to delete the second “and”.]

It was mid-afternoon on a stormy dark fall day
[This isn’t quite purple prose, but “stormy, dark, fall day” does remind me strongly of “It was a dark and stormy night.” You see the parallel.]
 Point Taken!

 in the operating room of Conawee Beach Hospital, better known as CBH. Revised to read: After a long period of unemployment I was settling into my new anesthesia position at Conawee Beach Hospital, better known as CBH. I took a look at my patient something that was a routine every three to five minutes.
[Watch your commas. There should be commas after “unemployment” and “patient” to separate the dependent and independent clauses.]

 The vital signs were  reflected on a computer monitor, and the blue beats of the EKG ran across the screen. The patient’s eyes are taped to prevent corneal abrasions, and an endotracheal tube juts from his mouth. The tube fogged and cleared as the ventilator bellows swish up and down.
[This paragraph breaks uncomfortably into present tense. Everything so far has been past tense. Keep it consistent.]

King Freeman’s dark brown eyes peaked
[“peeked”, not “peaked”]
Yikes! Can't believe I did that.
over the drape separating me from he and Dr. Crawford, “We’ll be finished in a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” I said, turning the anesthetic dials to the off position. Patients breathe out the gases when their source is shut off. I completed the process for waking up the patient and began recording the intakes and outputs- IV fluids, blood given, blood loss, and urine output. I stooped down to read the urine meter hanging under the surgery table. If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.
But I didn’t.
[Nicely done. It’s hard to work fortuitous or coincidental events into a narrative without having them feel forced. But here, you’ve done a nice job of creating an entirely believable context for the narrator to be in position to see it, while also waiting just that one extra beat of “But I didn’t” to let our curiosity build about what “it” is that she didn’t miss.]
I saw something fall to the floor from the surgeon’s pocket as he removed his gown. It could have been a picture; it could have been a packet of sugar.  Either was more likely than what I thought I saw; a suspicious white powder in a small plastic snack bag plummeting toward the floor. If I hadn’t been beneath the table checking the patient’s urine output, I wouldn’t have seen the surgeon place his foot on the packet. But I was. If I’d been less tired, maybe my reaction might have been different. But it wasn’t. 

What I did next was a visceral reaction to what I saw.
Without conscious thought about what I’d seen,
[The previous two lines border on over-explaining. You already let us know she was tired. That goes a long way towards enabling us to infer the rest. If you change “different” to “smarter” or “more savvy” or “more politic” or something like that, we’ll have just enough of a clue to really lock it in for ourselves. Narrative always comes across stronger and more believably when readers can infer the juicy bits for themselves.]
I stood and said, “Dr. Crawford, you dropped something on the floor.”
It’s amazing what you say if you don’t stop to think. Like stating the obvious.  In most instances, others might say I’m not impulsive. But that day, I was impulsive.

Thomas Crawford’s head whipped around, his gray eyes snapping, his hard gaze fixed on me. “Right. I got it,” he snarled.
There was absolutely no reason for his tone or words to have my hackles rising but it did. 
[“but they did.” Subject/verb agreement. The subject is “tone or words,” which is more than one thing, so you want “they.”] Excellent Point
I smiled and said as pleasantly as I could to his retreating back, “Good. We’ll see you in recovery.”
King typed into his notebook. He was waiting to help me take the patient to recovery.  “You handled that well,” he said quietly.
I studied him a few seconds; my eyes sweeping over his huge shoulders, dark brown hair cropped short, shadow of beard growth and his head down intent on what he was doing.
[Run-on sentence. At the very least, you need a comma after “seconds.” This one is so long, though, that I’d suggest a period, and change “sweeping” to “swept” to make a proper sentence out of the rest of it. That aside, she’s clearly interested in him…]
 “Oh, everyone has a bad day once in a while.” I replied. I asked myself what was there to handle. I had worked with irritable surgeons on more than one occasion. I’d have to ask John, my co-worker, who usually worked with Dr. Crawford what his problem was.
Closing his notebook, King said, “You look tired. Did you get any sleep last night?”

“Not much. The pager went off every time I put my head on the pillow.”

I could see the OR Tech and Circulating nurse watching us and wondered what they were thinking. “Thanks for asking.”
[I see this “I could see” and “I could hear” pattern quite a lot in my clients’ work. Generally, it isn’t necessary to explain to readers how a narrator comes to be aware of general stimuli in the environment. You don’t have to say “I could see” for things that are clearly visible. You don’t have to say “I could hear” for things like “his hard-soled shoes clacking down the hall.” For those kinds of stimuli, it’s usually better to simply state what the stimulus was. For example, “The OR Tech and Circulating nurse were watching us, and I wondered what they were thinking.” Or “His hard-soled shoes clacked down the hall.” I encourage you to do a search on your manuscript for the filler-phrases “I could see,” “I saw,” “I could hear”, and “I heard.” Take it as an exercise to revise those filler-phrases out of their sentences.]
“No problem. Let’s get to the recovery room,’ he smiled.  
I was shocked that I found myself attracted to him. I hadn’t been the least bit interested in anyone for over a year, but it was nice to know I wasn’t dead. I knew better. I’d always tried to keep my life private and separate from work. Operating rooms breed close relationships, but they also can be dens of gossip and the staff was watching me closely.

Later that day
[Wait! Hold on! What happened after the previous paragraph? Saying “later that day” signals to us that you’re skipping over a block of time in which nothing meaningful happened, and yet, the way that paragraph ends it is utterly laden with the implication of meaningful things! Was he making a pass at her, there, or was he just making a helpful suggestion? Did she in fact go to the recovery room? Was it a platonic, co-napping kind of thing, or did they get their groove on? You can’t just let that drop. We need more than simply “later that day” and a shift to job-hunting.]
 I am so sorry. An entire page is missing.
I sat on the porch with my lap top surfing employment agencies looking for better positions. Mac, my neighbor’s cat, came up to take his afternoon nap on the steps. The job market is tight in my specialty. I’d been lucky to land this job, but I couldn’t see myself in this job a year from now. Some anesthetists use agencies because they like the flexibility of short term positions. If they don’t like the personnel, they know they can move on.  I‘m not one of them. Having knowledge of the rules of the OR, the individual quirks of the surgeons and knowing where I’m going to be day to day is important to me.
Something was definitely wrong. The staff was watchful and suspicious, the other anesthetist a loner and almost non-communicative. The incident with Dr. Crawford had disturbed me. Was he on cocaine?
[That was the obvious implication…]
The thought of working with a doctor who was high could jeopardize my career if he made an error.
[No, the thought might be scary, but the thought itself doesn’t jeopardize anything. Working with a stoner surgeon is what might jeopardize her career. Be careful that the subject of your sentences doesn’t shift half-way through, or else the sentence ends up saying something non-sensical. This instance is strongly reminiscent of the “Thinking my wealth of experience” sentence from earlier.]
Something, I could not afford.
[No comma after “something.” This type of sentence fragment is perfectly fine in narrative writing, but the comma is definitely out of place.]
 Being an Anesthetist means long hours, arrogant surgeons, and learning to stay focused for long periods of time. It’s a profession  sometimes filled with boredom, contrasted by stark terror, then followed by brief moments of triumph that make it all worthwhile. But one error can kill a career. An anesthesia scandal involving a patient’s death can follow one around.
I had looked forward to the refuge of the beach from the chaos my life had been for the past year and no one was likely to die if I walked on the beach or surfed the internet
[That’s quite a complex, sprawling sentence. I had to read it a couple of times before I figured out what it fully meant. Meaning should be clear on the first reading. Things you can do: reword for clarity, replacing generic words with more specific ones; splitting the sentence into multiple sentences. For example:
“I had looked forward to the refuge the beach would provide from the chaos my life had been for the past year. No one was likely to die if I walked on the beach or surfed the internet.”
Notice how “the refuge the beach would provide” makes it easier for readers to take the meaning, compared to the back-to-back prepositional phrases of the original “of the beach from the chaos”. Everything after the “and” is a whole separate thought, so it splits trivially into a new sentence. Basically, give the reader two easily manageable bites, rather than one bite that’s too big to chew.]
I closed my laptop, opened the screen door of my rented cottage, stepped over the cat and headed down the stairs for the five minute walk to the beach. The smell of the ocean’s moist salty air, the feel of the breeze from the tide change had always helped me to clear my head. Waves crashed into shore and reminded me that life does change just as the occupants of the ocean do.
The echoes of children’s laughter rolled over me.  When was the last time I had felt such joy?  For me, happiness has been like the tides, a fleeting thing moving in slowly and leaving faster. Bleakness was unusual for me, after all I was known for my humor not dog faced sadness.
[These last two sentences create a bit of a puzzling juxtaposition. If happiness was a fleeting thing for her, then we don’t expect her to be known for her humor. We don’t associate joviality with people who are mostly not happy. Also, “after all I was known for my humor” is a tell, in “show, don’t tell” terms. We believe what we see—or rather, what we can infer for ourselves—not what we are told. In these five pages, we haven’t seen any behavior which we would take as humorous. In the small amounts of dialogue and interaction with other characters we do see, there wasn’t any particular humor. Essentially, you’ve given us several pages of evidence that allows us already to make an implicit determination that this narrator is not a barrel of laughs. So when you then try to flat-out tell us that she’s known for her humor, it rings false. It makes us realize “well, she hasn’t been funny so far!” Given the choice between believing the evidence the narrative has actually shown us, through her external behaviors, or a short piece of narrative telling, readers will always side with the evidence.]
 The phone rang as I walked further down the beach. The number wasn’t  familiar.

“Marti.” I recognized the sound of the voice.

[General notes: First, who is this narrator? What’s her name? We’ve gone all this way, and we don’t know her name. For that matter, we don’t even know her gender; I’m assuming female, from the context of the opening paragraphs about Kevin taking up with Miss Tranquility, but these days that’s not a guarantee of anything.
Speaking only for myself, I know that as a reader I tend to get antsy when pages and pages go by without identifying the characters. Sometimes you do that for effect, but here, I can’t think of any reason why there’s a benefit to withholding the narrator’s name. True, it’s harder to smoothly work it into a scene when the narration is in first person, but it’s not impossible. For example, if King was indeed flirting with her, you could find somewhere to work her name into his dialogue. That’s a common strategy. Or you could do it through a piece of self-rebuking inner monologue. Like, when she wondering about whether the baggie contained cocaine, she could also berate herself for making such a faux-pas in the operating room:
Looking back, I couldn’t believe I’d actually said that to Dr. Crawford. It was bound to come back on me later. I shook my head and muttered, “Just call me Smooth-Operator Sally.”
There are lots of ways to introduce the character’s vital stats—name/gender/rough age/role in society—in a first-person narrative. The last four of those are pretty easy, because readers are good at inferring those from context. Name, though, is hard. Names are totally arbitrary. They have no direct relationship to context, so they must somehow be explicitly mentioned.
But do find a way. In the movies, we have characters’ faces to use as an identity on which we hang everything we know about them. In a novel, we don’t have that. All we have is the name, which is why when we don’t get that name, we end up with an uncomfortable, vague feeling like we don’t really know who the character is. Even though the name is just an arbitrary label, it still serves to anchor the reader’s understanding of who the character is.]
Thank you so much for taking the time to critique my manuscript. My take away is:
1. Is the hook good enough to pull the reader into the story?
2. Choose the correct POV. It might have been easier to introduce the main character's name earlier if written in 3rd person.
3. Include something good about the character that we can care about (emotion).
4. Check for misspelled words, punctuation, grammar, syntax errors, redundant words and  long or run-on sentences before shooting if off to an editor. Sloppiness in the intial pages can be a turnoff to an agent or editor  and affect a potential sale. 
If you are a reader, now is your time to ask a question or comment on the above manuscript.
What do you see that would stop you reading this manuscript?

                                           A Note From Jason Black..

I am a book doctor who has helped scores of novelists improve their work over the past several years. I take a very analytical approach to literature, seeking to discover the "fundamental forces of fiction" and understand how those forces play out in narrative. My philosophy is that it is not enough simply to learn the rules-of-thumb for good narrative--use active voice, avoid adverbs, et cetera--without understanding why we have those rules, how they derive from those fundamental forces, and what effect following or breaking those rules has on the reader's experience of our stories. That's what I am constantly working to understand, and what I strive to share with my clients. 
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Ruby Johnson said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to appear on our blog. Every writer can benefit from your knowledge. I know I have.

Thorne said...

To the author: Thanks for having the courage to post your writing. The beginning needs more of a hook and you've already identified that as a problem. It would be difficult to evaluate the story with a page missing and makes the story a bit disjointed. Also, using spell check etc. on word or other program might have cleaned up the copy. I wasn't able to identify (visually or emotionally) with the character, but I don't really know why. Perhaps if this were written in third person these elements might have been easier. To the editor: If a writer has problems with story structure what would you suggest to help them? Classes? Books?

SusieSheehey said...

That's a good thought. Perhaps try writing the same 5 pages in 3rd person. Just a thought.
Jason's suggestions were so in depth, it's pointed out issues in my own writing too!
Thanks so much, both of you!

Jason Black said...

Hello all. Thanks again for having me on your site!

To the anonymous author, I don't think you have to jump all the way to 3rd person narrative just to make it easier to introduce the character's name. There are a million ways to crack that particular nut, and at least to me, the down-side of shifting to 3rd person is pretty high.

This may just be personal preference, but I love good 1st person writing. I love the immediacy of the narrator, and the close emotional connection 1st person creates with the reader. That's a lot to give up just for a name.

Be creative. You can probably think of half a dozen ways to do it. Even the way you originally had--the one that was edited out of that early sentence--would be just fine.

No doubt, 1st person is probably the most challenging POV to write well. But when it is done well, it is wonderful. I'd be hesitant to give that up too quickly.

Ladson said...

I like the idea of a mystery and this does have the beginning for one. Some revision is needed with the beginning and the structure, but a missing page might have affected my view of this. Nice critique.
Jason: What criteria do you use for a good beginning and hook?

Claire said...

Thanks for putting this out there Ruby. And thank you Jason Black for your critique. Like Susie it has pointed out areas I need to improve as well. Can't wait to read more Ruby!

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