Today, I'm going to critique the opening of the first manuscript I ever wrote. The working title was VOICE ON THE WIND. (Believe me, that voice was a cry for help!) I haven't looked at this in years, so it's practically new to me. This is the sort of critique I give and expect to receive from my critique partner. My comments are in red.
1866 (If I'm going to give the date, I should add the place: Savanah)
The bay gelding’s feet were wrapped with cloth to muffle the tattoo of his hooves on the cobbled streets. (Not a bad opener, but not great either. At least there's a hint of a question. Why is the rider trying not to be heard?) Every creak of leather and harness seemed unnaturally loud to the lone rider. His gray-green eyes, icy and forbidding as the Irish Sea, scanned the occasional passerby in the steamy night, searching for familiar faces. (I think I'm in this guy's POV, but it's such a distant view, I'm not sure. How about if I said 'He winced at every creak of leather and harness.'? It's much more immediate and I get a better sense of him. Wouldn't hurt to slip in his name. I need to cut the next part. No guy thinks about his own eyes as 'icy and forbidding as the Irish Sea'. The word 'scanned' leaps out at me as too contemporary. Sure enough, it wasn't used like this till 1926.) If they caught him there, they would kill him. (OK that's a good hook.)
Down by the river, the folks in shantytown had pulled their beds outside, hoping for a stray breeze on the hottest May night in recent memory. (Could I be more wordy? I should cut everything after 'breeze') To avoid them, he reined his horse down a rutted alley. Silently, he lifted a shirt and pair of trousers from a sagging clothesline, changed into them and stuffed his uniform into his saddlebag. (Wait a minute! He stole someone's clothes. Is this the hero or the villain? And what's his name anyway?) Even now, more than a year after Lee surrendered to Grant, it wouldn’t do to be caught alone in Savannah in a Union uniform. (With this sentence, I don't need to give the date and place at the beginning. It irritates readers when writers are redundant and say the same thing twice! ;-))
Especially since he spoke with a southern accent. (Ok this is an intriguing tidbit. He's a Southerner who fought for the Union. That makes for a conflicted character. I'd keep reading.)
Up on the hill, where the fine homes and the fine people were, he slowed the bay to a walk before moving into the eerie gaslight. (Usually, I redflag repeated words, but using 'fine' twice here is deliberate for emphasis.) Ponderous live oaks, heavily bearded with Spanish moss, concealed him in shadow as he stole into a small graveyard. He tethered his mount to the wrought iron fence near the mass grave for last year’s scarlet fever victims. (Evocative. I can see the scene, but I can't hear, smell or feel it. Use all the senses. If he hasn't been there, how does he know about last year's scarlet fever outbreak?)
“Be still now, Davy.” He gave the gelding a reassuring pat on the neck. (What? I know the horse's name, but I still don't know who this guy I'm following around is?) “I’ll be right back.” From there, he’d be safer on foot.
He moved with the stealthy grace of a panther, every tensed muscle under complete control. The borrowed trousers weren’t quite long enough for his legs and he could barely button the shirt across his broad chest. His hair was such a dark brown it was nearly black. His Celtic ancestors had bequeathed him fair skin and the contrast with his hair was striking. A raw-boned wildness in his features and turbulent pale eyes made his a face that sent many feminine hearts into palpitation. He would have been considered handsome save for the scar that ran from the tip of his right eyebrow nearly down to his square jaw. Even though the scar left him with a rakish and slightly arrogant expression, some women thought that only added to his attractiveness. Men recognized him as a dangerous man, one not afraid of a fight. (Where do I begin? First of all, if I'm in his POV, I can't have him give this self description. And if he did, he wouldn't use these words. They aren't "guy-speak." The whole thing has to go. Parts of it can be salted in later in small increments, preferably from an interested female's POV. No 'stealthy grace of a panther' though unless she regularly works with wild animals.)
But he wasn’t looking for a fight just then. He was just looking to see her. (Finally, we know what he's up to. Sort of. The whole scene is a little nebulous.)
The young man traced a route from his childhood through several expansive yards, past splattering fountains, and a rose garden perfuming the night with early buds. (Yay! Something to hear and smell!) A geriatric bloodhound roused himself from a carriage house doorway and nearly raised a tired alarm. (Oh, no. Geriatric wasn't a word until 1909! And if he nearly raised the alarm how do we know it would have been tired?)
“Hush, Boomer.” He massaged behind the dog’s long limp ear. “It’s only me.” (I've got to be kidding me. Now I've told the horse's name AND the dog's name, but not the guy's name. Sheesh!)
Boomer whined in pleasure and thumped his tail against the intruder’s legs. Boomer’s master would have been less welcoming if he’d known who was softly trekking across his property. The young soldier took a moment to survey the dark outline of the elegant house he grew up in. (Point of grammar. Don't end a sentence with a preposition.) The house where he was no longer welcome. (Ok, I'm liking this guy. I always pull for the outcast underdog, but what the heck is his name?)
Nimbly, he scaled the rock wall and dropped into the neighboring lawn. Here the fountain was plugged with old leaves and sludge. The Georgian-style home, grand enough in its prime, now whimpered for a fresh coat of paint. A graying shutter on the upper story swayed drunkenly on one hinge. No lamps were burning, but he could see in the moonlight that her window had been left open. (A tad overwritten. I'm personifying the house too much. Be careful about -ly words. I highlighted them in orange through out. I try to limit myself to 2 to a page. I've got 2 to a paragraph here. Think long and hard over whether adverbs are necessary. No guy would think of a home as Georgian-style unless he's not the sort to be interested in a woman's open window. But the open window suggests we're getting closer to the guy's goal.)
He sprinted across the yard and climbed the ancient cottonwood that overhung the narrow veranda girdling the upper story. Cat-footed, he dropped onto the veranda and froze, listening for sounds of arousal in the house. (Bet I mean 'rousal', not 'arousal' at this point.) Not a breeze stirred the muggy night, the air as thick as warm honey. Sweat trickled in rivulets down the ridge of his spine. Only the crickets’ song, and the low rhythmic march that he recognized as his own heartbeat, resounded in his ears. (Now I'm in a good tight POV. My heart is in sinc with his, but I still don't know the guy's name!)
The beckoning window stood open. (We know that already.) His body momentarily blocked the moonlight that fingered its way over the sleeping form under the gauzy mosquito netting. The sleeper was a young woman; a fitful sleeper to judge from the way her sheets lay bunched by her feet. (Oops! I've told then shown. If the sheets are bunched by her feet I'm insulting my readers by telling them she's a fitful sleeper. They can already see that.) Her coppery hair, in near-torrential waves, spilled over her pillow and curled in damp tendrils at her temples. The humid night air caused her thin shift to mold itself to the peaks and valleys of her form. (Near torrential waves of hair is serious overkill. Tone it down, girl. And I can tighten up the next sentence to 'Her thin shift molded to the peaks and valleys of her form.' Cuts 7 words. Less really is more. And he knows her name. If he told us the horse's name and the dog's name, he can think the girl's name, for Pete's sake!)
He paused for a moment to study her face, to measure her against his memory. The sleeper’s pert upturned nose was liberally sprinkled with freckles, which he knew she (And at this point, my two pages are mercifully up. The problem with this opening is that my hero, if that's who he is, has no one to interact with. It's almost empty of dialogue. I've started the story too early. Nothing has really happened. I'm sort of clearing my throat for a couple pages waiting for the action to start, which won't be until he slips into that bedroom window. Which I'm sorry to tell you is still another half page away! Everything up to this point needs to be axed.)
Ok, I'm relieved that's over. But if you're a writer, this post was designed to give you hope. This is how I wrote in 2001, before I attended any RWA meetings, critique groups or even read any "how to" books. This was just me trying to capture something and set it on paper. I had no idea about the elements of storytelling, little sense of POV and no sense of reader expectations. I share this with you because wherever you are along your writer's journey, you need to understand all those things are skills that can be learned. Writing is an art and a craft. Mostly a craft.
Become a student of the writing craft and take a healthy dose of critique regularly. You'll be amazed at the change in your writing over time. Have you ever received a critique suggestion that changed the way you approached telling your story?
Emily, you are a brave woman. I am way too embarrassed to post my first story. The entire first two pages are adjectives and adverbs, no action at all. Oops!
wow, you know so much more than I, as a humble reader, do! Every little helps, of course, but I do think it must really matter a lot how experienced and knowledgeable a critique partner is. good thing you share your knowledge :)
btw, I don't believe you would actually tell another author "could you be any more wordy?" ;)
Penelope--The point of this self-flagellation is to show that writers grow and develop their skill as they exercise it. The best thing a writer can do to improve their writing is write.
Nynke--I have so much more to learn. Writing is a constant path of discovery.
You're right. I'm always harder on myself than anyone else. When I first wrote VOICE ON THE WIND, I though it was great stuff. Now I'm embarrassed by how much I didn't see wrong. In another 9 years, I'll see even more wrong I'm sure.
This is an excellent post for someone like me, the new writer! It really helps to see things. I was very curious what reference you use to tell when words came into play (like 'geriatric' 1909)? Is there a reference book for that kind of information?
This is your first novel? Wow.
My first novel read like it had been written by an angsting teenager who'd read too many romance novels and was caught up in the endless beauty of the night and bad Dracula quotes about "crossing oceans of time" while listening to too much Type O Negative. Oh, wait... ROFL.
Sori--Glad to help. That's the point.
You'll want to bookmark this site:
Online Etymological Dictionary
It gives the definition, background, when certain usages were first noted, tons of info for the word-o-phile!
Saranna--Wow, indeed. As in "How bad can bad get!"
I LOVED the excerpt you sent me to critique for next Thursday, the 18th. (But I still rippped a few things! ;-))
If readers enjoy this, I may make Critique Thursdays a regular feature on my blog.
EXCELLENT post, Emily. And I agree with Penelope--you are brave to put your first novel onine for all to see. However, you started as a very strong writer. I can see why you're successful.
I love the idea of Thursday critiques. Thanks for sharing.
P.S. What is the guy's name?
P.P.S. I do know how to spell "online." Sheesh.
Thank you, Beth. I don't know if I was a strong writer or just stubborn.
Sean O'Rourke, 2nd son of a fine southern family who was at West Point when the Civil War broke out. He ends up in Wyoming fighting the Sioux and is thought to have died during the Fetterman Massacre. Instead he was abducted because he'd shown mercy to one of the warriors and his son in an earlier skirmish, so they take him prisoner instead.
It's a twisted tale and even now, I'm not sure how it ends. Does he stay with the Native American girl who nurses him back to health or the southern girl whose window he's climbing into in the beginning? Guess we'll never know.
Oh my, if that is what you consider bad work, I am soooo glad I did not offer up my two pages.*giggle*
Seriously, it was good to read your thoughts on your own work. I like to pick up tips from the experts, thanks for sharing, Emily.
Glynis--Thanks for the kind words. And I'm sure your two pages would not have been the train wreck you suggest.
I hope writers will be able to look a this post and apply some of the same principles to their own work.
Does the first sentence grab the reader?
Is the POV clear?
Can I cut extraneous words?
Is the dialogue snappy? Is there enough of it?
These are the same things I ask myself about my current work.
Ok, Now I am really nervous about letting you red pencil mine! LOL!
Fear not, Jane. You can opt for the kid gloves treatment if you want.
I will send your critique to you before it posts, so you can rebutt if you like. Saranna did! (She'll be on the blog next Thursday with her hysterical How to lose an Angel in 10 Days.)
Enjoyed your post. Had to laugh, most of your red pencil comments were the same as mine - not as a critic, but as a reader. I still wanted to know what was going to happen and who these people were, which is the point of writing your story. I've heard many writers tell aspiring writers to just write. Get something down on paper, no matter how good or bad it is. Reading this post shows just what the value of that advice is. Once you get something down, you can edit, rewrite, and tweak it. It may still end up not being a very good story, but the exercise of working on it has to be a good learning experience.
You are so brave and have such a great sense of humor. I hope someday I have enough distance to go back and do that with my first story. You asked if someone's critique had made a difference?
One contest judge hated my heroine, called her whiney. The other judges liked it (I finaled), but that critique stuck with me enough for me to go back and read those first pages with new eyes. And you know, I could see why she said that. I made some changes and I hope the story, when I finish it, will be stronger. So some critiques can hurt but can be helpful in the long run.
P.S Maybe you can revisit your plot sometime--it sounds interesting!!
Pat--Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it every day.
And it looks like Red Pencil Thursday is going to be a regular feature on my blog for a while. I have 3 writers lined up for a public bath and we'll see if more decide it's a useful exercise.
Barb--Sometimes critiques hurt. But when that happens, I try to remember that "Faithful are the wounds of a friend." If you trust the source of the critique, you have to consider their opinion.
The point of critique isn't to receive endless accolades. It's to make the work better. Sometimes, that means taking out the machete.
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