Friday, March 18, 2011

Lost in the Forest With He, Him, Them & Her

By John Gilstrap
It's my turn to take a stab at critiquing a first page.  In this one, we'll see the downside of keeping characters' names a secret from readers.  I'll see you on the other side of the submission:
Darkness
Hunter, hunted? A simple matter of perspective. His perspective changed the instant the hunted vanished over the tree lined ridge fifty yards ahead. His chest tightened, his heart skipped a beat. He tightened his grip on the stock of his weapon.

The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down, leaving a black void in its wake. Like gauze, the Southern California smog absorbed the pin pricks of star light. Trees choked out what light was left, leaving the men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.

Without words the five men, broad and rigid, assembled at the crest. Their weapons were poised like stone shadows standing sentry for the world. In his electronic ear piece he heard the hunt captain address them. “We can go in tight and drawn. We will have to lure it out to get it. Any other options?”

He peered into the blackness twenty steep yards below. Something stirred rustling the branches in the abyss. It was too dark to identify the myriad of shadows below. Most would be innocuous. Forest trees and shrubs. One would be a deadly predator. Hungry for them. His breath came shallow and tight. His hand sweat against the weapon stock.

Options? There were always options. An image of black curly hair and topaz eyes flickered into his mind. His chest constricted choking his lungs so he couldn’t inhale. No. She was not an option, he quelled the thought.

The men squinted in the dark to look at each other wordlessly. None of them had a better suggestion. It was settled then. He closed his eyes for the briefest moment and forced air into his clenched chest.

“Anderson, take two o’clock” he acknowledged his assignment with a slight nod and silently stepped into position.

He released his vice grip from the fiberglass stock of his cross bow and wiggled blood back into his numb fingers. He would have liked to lower the heavy weapon long enough to stretch his cramping neck muscles and rest his burning left arm. He’d been pointing the cumbrous weapon for eight straight hours.

***

Before we get to content, let’s talk a bit about formatting. It doesn’t show in the translation to blogger, but this piece came to me with some really funky fonts and bizarre line spacing. Folks, the only way to go is 12-point Times New Roman or Courier (though I think that Courier might have fallen out of fashion). In its original form, the piece was formatted with 1.5 spaces between lines, and then two spaces between paragraphs. I try to keep an open mind on these things, but I confess it’s hard not to think negative thoughts from the very beginning, along the lines of, “If the writer can’t get the simple stuff right, how on earth is s/he going to be able to handle the storytelling?

Little things really do matter.

Okay, now to the story itself. Maybe the best way to critique this piece is to recreate it below, and then comment. My comments are in bold type.


Darkness


Hunter, hunted? A simple matter of perspective. His perspective changed the instant the hunted vanished over the tree lined ridge fifty yards ahead. His chest tightened, his heart skipped a beat. He tightened his grip on the stock of his weapon.
I’m awash in pronouns. After presenting me with a choice between hunter and hunted—a choice that borders on cliché at its face—the author then presents me with a disembodied “his”. Whose? A beat later we learn that he sees the hunted disappear over the ridge. This is particularly confusing in light of the assertion that hunter vs. hunted all a matter of perspective.  If he can see the "hunted", then isn't he, by process of elimination, the hunter?

The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down, leaving a black void in its wake. Like gauze, the Southern California smog absorbed the pin pricks of star light. Trees choked out what light was left, leaving the men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.

Full disclosure: When I’m in critique mode, I have a tendency to think too much, and maybe that’s what’s happening here, but this paragraph really doesn’t work for me. In order:

1. “The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down.” So, why report it? The author is describing something that isn’t there. And, just between us, didn’t the rest of the moon go down, too?

2. “. . . leaving a black void in its wake.” Wakes are left by movement. Doesn’t work for me here.

3. “Like gauze . . . absorbed the pinpricks of starlight.” To me, this means there are no stars showing. If there are no stars showing, then the image of pinpricks is superfluous and confusing.

4. “. . . men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.” You need light for shadows, yet we’ve spent a paragraph describing profound darkness. Again, the images are battling each other and creating confusion.

5. Who are “the men”? Is OPKOAH (our protagonist known only as “he”) among them, or are the men in fact the hunted?
Without words the five men, broad and rigid, assembled at the crest. Their weapons were poised like stone shadows standing sentry for the world. In his electronic ear piece he heard the hunt captain address them. “We can go in tight and drawn. We will have to lure it out to get it. Any other options?”

I don’t know what broad and rigid men look like, but the sentence reads as vaguely pornographic. Weapons poised like stone shadows? Is the “he” with the earpiece the same he as OPKOAH? I don’t know what “tight and drawn” means, either.

He peered into the blackness twenty steep yards below. Something stirred rustling the branches in the abyss. It was too dark to identify the myriad of shadows below. Most would be innocuous. Forest trees and shrubs. One would be a deadly predator. Hungry for them. His breath came shallow and tight. His hand sweat against the weapon stock.

Sigh. Another unidentified he. At this point, I’m too busy triangulating POVs (since OPKOAH was watching people crest a hill, then this paragraph's he must be with the he with the earpiece, right?) to pay much attention to the action. Part of me is beginning to think that OPKOAH might be the deadly predator who’s hungry for them. But, since I don’t know who them is, most of me has stopped caring.

I don’t toss out that last line to be mean, by the way. Reading is not supposed to be hard, and fiction is not supposed to require a decoder ring.

Options? There were always options. An image of black curly hair and topaz eyes flickered into his mind. His chest constricted choking his lungs so he couldn’t inhale. No. She was not an option, he quelled the thought.

Oh, good Lord, now we have a she. With eyes and hair that make a masculine pronoun choke. (Is the masculine pronoun OPKOAH, or a new one? I don’t know, but there’s an Abbott and Costello routine in here somewhere.)

The men squinted in the dark to look at each other wordlessly. None of them had a better suggestion. It was settled then. He closed his eyes for the briefest moment and forced air into his clenched chest.

Holy shit, now we’re back with the men. And they’re squinting. Together. A choreographed Gilbert Gottfried impersonation. I’m relieved, however, that the disembodied he was able to clear the hair ball and breathe again. Do chests really clench?

“Anderson, take two o’clock” he acknowledged his assignment with a slight nod and silently stepped into position.

 “Yes sir,” Anderson replied. “And what you like me to do with two o'clock after I take it?”

Okay, I added that part. Finally, one person has a name, but I have to take in on faith that the he who acknowledged his assignment is in fact Anderson, and not the nameless being who’s in charge.

Question: Are we to assume that the he who was introduced in the first paragraph—therefore establishing him as a point of view character—is somehow overhearing this conversation from 50 yards away?
He released his vice grip from the fiberglass stock of his cross bow and wiggled blood back into his numb fingers. He would have liked to lower the heavy weapon long enough to stretch his cramping neck muscles and rest his burning left arm. He’d been pointing the cumbrous weapon for eight straight hours.

Hmm. Anderson has a crossbow? No, wait, I bet we’re back with OPKOAH. The beast, maybe? Choke-hair with gender identity issues? Really, it doesn’t matter because I’ll not be reading any further.

The importance of POV cannot be overstressed. Confusion leads to frustration, which leads to early rejection.

Note to the author: Please understand that even in poking fun, I’m coming from a respectful place. It takes guts to submit stuff to a group like this, and I admire that. I also admire your desire to improve your craft, so I hope you take this ribbing in the spirit with which it was intended.

19 comments:

  1. What JJ said about what John said!

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  2. Times Roman? Courier? I'd rather have seen this one in dingbat
    italic Bold or maybe with a one page space between the first and second sentence.

    Would I read on? I'd rather watch a forty-eight-hour long compilation of the media run up to the Royal wedding.

    Plus what John said.

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  3. "It takes guts to submit stuff to a group like this, and I admire that."

    I wanted to add to what John said about submitting your first page to TKZ for critique. What a writer should want out of this exercise is an honest evaluation of the work. If everyone reads back through the previous submissions and all the ones from last year, you'll find that when the writing is good, we say so, and when it has faults, we say so. Here's the most important thing to remember: It's better to get an honest assessment of your writing from the authors at TKZ than a generic "not for us" reply from an agent or editor. With us, you always get a second chance to make a first impression.

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  4. Gilbert Gottfried. OMG. I'll never write the word squint again without thinking of GG.

    John covered it, but I'll add that my first manuscript was VERY over written with flowery prose that I still chuckle over. But an author has to start somewhere.

    And the best ways to improve are reading good books in the genre, learn the craft of writing wherever you can (taking workshops, local writers groups, etc), and WRITING again and again. You will eventually find your own voice and method.

    I've learned from these critiques too. So thanks to the brave ones who submitted. you guys rock!

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  5. I've always said the all the praise in the world doesn't help your writing. But an honest critique is a wonderful step in the right direction.

    I honestly think that so many writers are so desperate to "find" a unique voice that they just overdo things.

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  6. No matter how well written or how much a first page needs tweaking this is still a wonderful way to learn. Thanks to authors and critiquers alike.

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  7. Re: Line spacing

    The newer version of Word (I'm speaking of 2010 though I'm betting 2007 does the same) includes 1.5 line spacing by default. It's annoying and a bad default setting IMO.

    Here's the fix:
    (1) In Word 2010 create a new document.
    (2) Go to the Page Layout tab.
    (3) In the Paragraph grouping section, change Spacing After to 0pt.
    (4) Then, right below the box for Spacing is a corner pull-out button-thingy. Click it.
    (5) At the bottom of the Paragraph window that popped up is a Set As Default button. Click it.
    (6) Choose to apply to "All documents based on the Normal.dotm template" and click OK.
    (7) Close Word. Don't save the document.
    (8) Run Word and check that your spacing has been reset to 0pt.

    Instructions for 2007 should be the same. Users of older versions can go to [File] > [Page Setup] and click the default button there after prepping a blank document. The instructions are similar.

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  8. OPKOAH?
    vaguely pornographic?!
    Abbott and Costello!

    LOL, John!!!

    And I get bonus comments by JJ, Joe, and John! Ha!

    Thanks for the laugh, all.

    Now, in all seriousness I would like to say that I detect a voice behind all the pronouns that's trying to get through. Anonymous, laugh with us and then get back to work. It's a learned skill to be able to put what's in your head on paper in a form that others can comprehend. Keep working and you'll figure it out.

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  9. The author of this submission just seems to be reaching too far for a "literary" effect.

    Take this paragraph:

    The outer shaving of the moon had already gone down, leaving a black void in its wake. Like gauze, the Southern California smog absorbed the pin pricks of star light. Trees choked out what light was left, leaving the men in darkness. Silhouettes against the shadows.

    As written, this will never reach a publisher's desk. But if it did, I suspect the editor's cross-outs would yield a single sentence, like:

    The moon had already gone down, leaving the men in darkness.

    Direct and to-the-point is always better, and that's especially true when trying to craft a suspenseful scene.

    As is, the language and word choices are too self-conscious. The writing calls too much attention to itself, and distracts from the story.

    P.S. I hope the author is not overly discouraged by the chorus of crticism. I suspect there's some writing talent hidden among the words.

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  10. This brought back memories. I made some very similar mistakes with my first manuscript (the one tucked in a box in the garage, that will never see the light of day).
    I'm not saying that this one will suffer the same fate--but John is right, it needs a very careful going over. You don't want to overwhelm a reader with metaphors, they're supposed to add to comprehension, not inhibit it. And it's always good to give a reader some character names to hold on to. Even if these men are only going to appear in this scene, then be gone forever, keeping their identities a secret ends up being off-putting.

    Mind you, the alternative is also a mistake. I recently read an unpublished manuscript that opened in an office meeting. Literally fifteen characters were identified, and worse yet they all engaged in dialogue, so from page one I was confronted by "Morgan said," Hutchins responded," "Okay, said Jeffries..." and so on.
    Keep it simple, clean, and clear.

    Still, there's the nugget of something here. Once the superfluous stuff is cleared away, I'd be curious to find out what these men are up against.

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  11. I have to say that sometimes I go over the top in these critiques for the fun of it and probably at the author's expense. I don't intend to be mean to an actual person, but rather to show my ass. I want to apologize to all of the authors and applaud those who are brave enough to throw their work into our little Gin mill (or, in my case, a scotch mill).

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  12. Here's the thing: having a thick skin is an essential part of being an artist in any medium. The work speaks for itself, and the art is not the artist. It's unreasonable in an exercise like this to expect creative people to pull punches.

    Miller, I don't think you owed the apology, although it was a nice thing to do. But let's be honest: "dingbat bold italic" is a funny line. It needed to be used somewhere.

    Authors and participants, if you don't know by now that we at TKZ mean no offense, then I think you haven't been paying attention. It's all in good fun. Really. Even if it hurts a little.

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  13. Back during my modern dance career, I once auditioned for Paul Taylor. After three rounds of auditions I was standing there in the final ten, all vying for a single spot. We danced the routine and then stood there panting, waiting for his verdict. Paul Taylor proceeded to announce to a roomful of people that my legs looked like sausages in the tights I was wearing, hence, he had no interest in adding me to his company.

    There's nothing quite like a dance career to train you how to handle rejection and criticism. A lot of people cave, give up, and leave with their tails tucked between their legs. In that career, as in this one, what I've discovered is that the people who ultimately succeed are those who grit their teeth, listen to constructive criticism (in my case, I never wore those tights to an audition again), and move on. Rejection and criticism is part of the process. Don't internalize it, but heed it when you sense that there's some sort of underlying truth there.
    That being said, to this day I think Paul Taylor is a massive jerk ;)

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  14. As an author I only suck up to people who can give me a leg up, like Gilstrap, Gin Mill comment was not necessarily aimed in his general direction.

    This authoring thing is a club where membership is only attainable by working the steps (or being able to make little old ladies cry with 100 page oowie-gooey books). There is no short cut, just hard work, some luck, sheer determination, a very thick skin, and ability that deserves an editor's attention and a place in the market. There's always room for more.

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  15. Daniel, thanks for the instructions on how to get rid of the 1.5 spacing in Word. What were they thinking?

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  16. Wow...I've been out of town / TDY for a week, then hammered with catch up work since returning and come back to find you guys have been busy.

    Good advice seems to be flowing in bucket loads here at TKZ.

    As far as thick skin, I started my adult life in stage and stand-up then got into restaurants and now radio,and writing. Let me tell ya...thick hide = arrows can't penetrate and you start to learn how to duck, or at least to put your shield in front. That said, it really is kinda cool to run around with a bunch of arrows sticking out of your leather skin (think Connery in "The Man Who Would Be King") and all the people going "Ooooooh" and "Aaaaaah" cuz you're not dead yet.

    And JRM...I didn't realize you're into the whole wedding planner thing...learn something new everyday.

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  17. I think we've all written drafts that have suffered from similar issues - and I confess to a few that have had pronoun overload! Still I think finding your voice as a writer is the hardest thing to do and I commend our submitted for giving it a strong try - I would definitely say keep going! Keep writing! You will get there.

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  18. I read it over a couple of times. I kept feeling lost. My main impressions were darkness and some tough seeming guys. I had no idea if they were good guys or bad guys or any real feeling other than disorientation. Tweaked to actually pull out and define at least one of the characters and have a feel for what he is feeling would be very helpful and orient the scene better.

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