Tuesday, September 10, 2013

First Page Critique: THE CIRCLE


Today we have a first page from a story called THE CIRCLE. My comments follow.

***

Leigh looked up from her mum’s casket, concentrating on the slatted, pitched ceiling of the church. The familiar voice of the chaplain droned on from the pulpit and she focused not his words, which would surely undo her, but to the soothing and steady cadence. She held the back of her forefinger to her nose, wincing as she touched the swollen, chapped skin.

Reaching in her handbag for a tissue, her searching fingers settled on the age-softened newspaper article her mum had given her just two days ago. A jolt fired through her stomach and she yanked her hand out and clenched her palms in her lap, her fingers twining together until her knuckles blanched.

What had they been like?

The unspoken question itself felt traitorous. A glance to her left confirmed that her dad—that is, the only man she’d ever known as a father—was sitting upright, only the sparkling reflection on his cheeks belied his stoic figure.

Leigh took a steadying breath. Today she would ask Uncle Pete about the article. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if she could spot him in the pews but her attention was caught by a man near the door in plain green Barrack Dress, staring at her.

She turned around to face forward again, her brow puckered. The military uniform must mean he was a friend of her dad. But surely the man was too young? Her dad had retired from the service when she was a baby. And the man had rudely not looked away when she'd held his gaze.

She turned to look again, but now there was only empty space where he'd stood.

###

Leigh found Uncle Pete at the reception back at the house. He was loading a plate from the buffet of casseroles and cakes in the dining room. When he saw her, he set it down and held out a hand. As she hugged him, he tucked her head under his chin.

“Hey little bit,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Your mum was one of a kind.”

Leigh relaxed into his embrace, hitching in a stuttering sigh. Though they weren’t related, she’d called him uncle as long as she could remember. And now he might be the only one who could help her. “Can I talk to you alone?”


***

My comments: I like the premise the writer establishes in this first page. We immediately know that the narrator is going through multiple crises--her mother has just died, and she just learned that the parents she has always known are not her real parents. There's also a hint of military intrigue to come. This is a good opening situation.

In general, the writing here is strong enough to keep me reading. I would suggest some tweaking to make it even stronger. I put my specific suggestions in bold red.



Leigh looked up from her mum’s casket, concentrating on the slatted, pitched ceiling of the church. The familiar voice of the chaplain 
(Perhaps mention the chaplain by name, if he's familiar?) droned on from the pulpit. She  
(I think this sentence is stronger if broken up) focused not on 
(Missing preposition inserted here) his words, which would surely undo her, but to the soothing and steady cadence. 
(After inserting the missing 'on', the combination with 'to' doesn't read well. Might need to rewrite this sentence)
 She held the back of her forefinger to her nose, wincing as she touched the  swollen, chapped skin. 

(This sounds stronger to me without the 'the'. Also, the first sentence of the paragraph already has a gerund clause. Try to vary the structure of sentences in every paragraph as much as possible, to punch up the rhythm.)

Reaching in her handbag for a tissue, her searching fingers settled on the age-softened newspaper article her mum had given her just two days ago. 

(Another gerund clause, plus there are two "ing" words in the same sentence. As writers, we all tend to overuse one type of structure, punctuation, or phrasing in our first drafts. This writer might want to check for the overuse of 'ing' throughout the manuscript.)
A jolt fired through her stomach and she yanked her hand out and clenched her palms in her lap, her fingers twining together until her knuckles blanched.  
(Here, there are too many actions in one sentence: jolt, yank, clench, twine, and blanch. Consider breaking this sentence up to strengthen the flow.)

What had they been like?  

(I put this in italics to indicate inner thought. This sentence was a bit jarring to me as I read it. It might have worked better if we'd gotten some clue about what was in the newspaper. Perhaps the narrator could glance down and register a word from the headline, a picture, or something that would set up her internal question.)

The unspoken question itself felt traitorous.  

(This sentence felt slightly awkward to me.)   
A glance to her left confirmed that her dad—that is, the only man she’d ever known as a father—was sitting upright. Only the sparkling 
(ING Alert. Break up this sentence to make it stonger. Also, 'sparkling" didn't convey tears to me on the first read) reflection on his cheeks belied his stoic figure
("Belied his stoic figure" seems stiff, somewhat Churchillian. It doesn't match the tone of the rest of the piece.)

Leigh took a steadying breath. Today she would ask Uncle Pete about the article. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if she could spot him in the pews but her attention was caught by a man near the door in plain green Barrack Dress, staring at her.  

(ING Alert. And again, there are too many actions in one sentence. Separate the man's action to distinguish it from hers.)

She turned around to face forward again, her brow puckered.  

(This might just be me, but I don't like the word 'puckered'. I think it's because I read so many manuscripts that overdo facial and hand tics.) 
The military uniform must mean he was a friend of her dad. But surely the man was too young? Her dad had retired from the service  when she was a baby. 
(It might be stronger to mention the name of the Service. Specific descriptions give the reader hints about your characters' backgrounds, and adds authenticity to your writing) 
 And the man had rudely not looked away when she'd held his gaze.
(Why is this  rude? Wasn't she staring at him as well? "Rudely not looked away" is slightly awkward, as well. )

She turned to look again, but now there was only empty space where he'd stood.

###

Leigh found Uncle Pete at the reception back at the house. He was loading a plate from the buffet of casseroles and cakes in the dining room. When he saw her, he set it down and held out a hand. As she hugged him, he tucked her head under his chin.

“Hey Little Bit,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Your mum was one of a kind.”

Leigh relaxed into his embrace, hitching in a stuttering sigh. 

(ING Alert) 
Though they weren’t related, she’d called him uncle as long as she could remember. And now he might be the only one who could help her. “Can I talk to you alone?” 
(The formatting of the paragraph detracts from the tension of the scene, and it's slightly unclear who is asking the question.  It might be stronger if you show her voicing a muffled question into the wool of his jacket, or something like that.

***

Overall: I made a lot of suggestions for this page, but the fixes are all fairly minor, and easily made. This is a manuscript that seems very promising to me. It just needs a polish and some tweaking to get it to the next level. The writer should examine the rest of the manuscript for some of the issues we've discussed.

Thank you for submitting this page, Writer! Well done, and keep going with this story!

TKZ'ers, do you have any suggestions or anything you'd like to add?

23 comments:

  1. The Inge don't bother me much. I'd certainly save "hitching in a stuttering sigh." Some nice phrasing here. "Blanched knuckles" was good. I see a nice, descriptive turn of phrase. What I think is missing is more emotional reaction from the protagonist. Overall, I liked this piece. Good job.

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    1. I like the blanched knuckles too, Anon. A few if the INGs are fine--it's just a matter of watching out for overuse of a particular form of word. Thanks for commenting!

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    2. That is to say, "a few OF the INGs are fine... " Typing on the iPad, never easy!

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  2. These comments are all good. The question, "What had they been like?" threw me off. Who are THEY? I didn't get it. But the narrator's clear grief and the question of the military man drew me in. Nice work.

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    1. I agree about the inner question--it confuses the reader. The military-man theme, as you point out, is done well and intriguing.

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  3. I was confused by a couple of things. looked up from her mum's casket made me think she was standing right over it, but then it's apparent she's not. A little thing, but you don't want to trip up readers with anything, esp. at the beginning.

    And maybe I'm missing something, but I don't know what holding the back of a forefinger to the nose is about. It seems an odd gesture, but just as I'm thinking about it, she reaches into her handbag. I'm trying to follow all this and having a bit of a hard time.

    Kathryn mentioned the "-ing" construction as the start of a sentence. It is indeed a good idea to watch for these, because most of the time they are indicating two distinct actions that cannot be happening simultaneously. For example, the act of REACHING into a handbag is physically distinct from the act of SEARCHING or SETTLING. See that? The proper construction would have an "and" connecting the two actions, or make the whole thing two sentences (my preference).

    I was also taken aback by hitching in a stuttering sigh. I had to think about it for awhile to figure out what this meant. It's also competing with the first part, Liegh relaxed into his embrace. That's a nice beat, but it's diluted by the stuttering sigh, which I don't think is needed for this moment. Wherever you see sentences with two distinct actions (see above) think about eliminating one, or making two sentences out of it.

    Now, all that being said, I like the set-up here. I like the immediate emotional disturbance (being at mum's funeral) and the mysteries (the article, the dad and the military guy). The writer has all the right instincts. It's just a matter of not letting the style trip us up from what's compelling.

    With some tightening, I'd definitely read on.

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  4. I can't really add much to what's already been said. I think some of the phrasing has been overwritten, but it's a minor thing.

    I would definitely keep reading, although the missing preposition almost stopped me. I'll stick with a writer, and even try to figure out actions where the wording is confusing, if I trust that the story is professionally told. Most of what I see here looks that way to my untrained eye, but that one preposition slip ON THE FIRST PAGE makes me antsy. It warns that if you didn't clean up your first page, how many more mistakes are likely to turn a promising manuscript into amateur hour.

    Overall I would probably keep reading, but with just a hint of trepidation.

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  5. The essence of a good story seems to be here. Although overwritten, the writer sets up a number of questions that intrigue. I would keep reading. BTW, the word "surely" is used twice here. I would delete all uses of it. And don't call me Shirley.

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  6. I'm less positive than those who've commented so far. There is an interesting setup, but I'm not clear what it is - something to do with her parents who aren't her parents and a military guy at a funeral. It's promising, but not compelling. (to me.)

    As I read the excerpt I felt like this is a person who can write, but someone who's working too hard at it. Her "blanched knuckles," "swollen, chapped" nose, "twining fingers," and the "jolt through her stomach" - and so on and so forth. It was like I couldn't really get into the scene because the writer was so busy describing the scenery.

    I feel like we're getting lots of detail - the writer has been to writing workshops - but not necessarily the telling detail - and for me, the details started to weigh the story down. Plus, the details don't necessarily add up - I have no idea why that newspaper article should be jolting and no idea who "What had they been like" refers to.

    I don't understand why non-uncle Uncle Pete might be the only one who could help her and that sounds very extreme given that the man she knows as father is sitting right there, doesn't seem threatening, seems to have cared about her mum...in fact, with all the casseroles and cakes this seems to be a person surrounded by a caring community.

    Of course, looks can be deceiving and I assume that's going to be the point. But, right now I feel like I've read quite a bit of description without much sense of the story.

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  7. Polished or not, this first page draws the reader in due to the emotional setting and the intrigue of the military man staring and then disappearing. Those two elements, together, had a binding appeal to me. I would continue reading for those reasons.

    I agree some editing and tightening would make this feel more polished, but the desire to continue isn't hindered in any way, at least not for me.

    Nice hook!

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  8. A little too wordy for me. I'd keep reading but I'd probably be skimming, looking for references about the military fellow and the note.

    This might sound silly, but it doesn't have a rhythm. I'd ask the author if they read the first page out loud before they submitted it. Doing that gives you a good idea of whether or not the writing flows.

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    1. The rhythm of language is such an important element, I agree, Amanda. Reading the work aloud can help us determine whether the prose sounds natural and effortless, or ponderous and straining for effect. One way to create rhythm in paragraphs is to begin and end the paragraph with a short sentence. The initial short sentence helps the reader get into the paragraph more easily, and the short sentence at the end provides momentum into the next paragraph. Save longer, more complex sentences for the middle of paragraphs.

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    2. Great that you mentioned rhythm. I feel like rhythm is the reader's magic carpet.

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  9. In general I think this is a strong opener that could be even stronger with some of the changes suggested by others. The only thing I'll mention is that darned forefinger in the first paragraph. That took me right out of the story, but it's an easy fix. Just write "her forefinger" rather than "back of her forefinger." I sat here touching my nose with the "back" of my forefinger several times. (I assume the back is opposite the palm side.) It's an awkward, unnatural gesture. I kept thinking "Why would someone touch their nose with the back of their forefinger rather than the front?"

    Anyway, clearly for me this description didn't work. But it is an easy fix.

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    1. I agree, Eric. Any wording that draws too much attention to itself should be rewritten. Thanks for your comment!

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  10. I really like the set up and though there are a few overwritten parts I agree that these are an easy fix. I would definitely keep reading!

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  11. I, too, like the set up.

    The opening paragraphs, especially when introducing the main character, need to be carefully done and with an eye to the personality of the MC. Here I see a person overcome by grief, but still processing strange events. A bit of a mixed message for me. I might have started the story after the first break and treated the funeral as backstory.

    I have a thing about an emotional MC. It can sound like weakness. An event like Mum's funeral is a time the writer can show the strength of a character rather than an emotional moment.

    This can be important if we (the reader) are to accept the MC as someone who is capable of solving a big mystery. Here the MC seems overcome, understandable, but doesn't begin the process of building a character I can rely on.

    I love Lifetime Movie Network movies. They tend to be straight forward, but they often suffer from a MC who is frozen in one moment of stress and incredibly strong in the next. I'd rather see a character's strength first.

    If this is a story of an emotional person learning to become strong - then, never mind.

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  12. Pretty good setup. Some good suspense and questions raised, which we always want to see in an opening chapter. Generally the writing is good but as others have pointed out, needs some cleaning up. Like this graph:

    Reaching in her handbag for a tissue, her searching fingers settled on the age-softened newspaper article her mum had given her just two days ago. A jolt fired through her stomach and she yanked her hand out and clenched her palms in her lap, her fingers twining together until her knuckles blanched.

    The tension is there in the action (the disturbing letter in her purse) so you needn't gild the rose with "jolt" "clench" "fired through the stomach" and white knuckles. Also, "searching fingers" don't reach into a purse, a human does. Go with something clean:

    She reached into her purse and pulled out the newspaper article. Her mum had given it to her just two days ago but it was yellowed and soft with age.

    Like others have said, I'd like to see a hint of what's in this article. Sometimes you can be too coy in trying to establish suspense; I think this is one case.

    I like the soldier at the door. But also agree he wasn't being rude.

    After the break, when you take me to the reception, I'd like to see a tad more scene-setting. "Leigh found Uncle Pete at the reception back at the house" is really abrupt. Slow down a tad and give me a few details...where are we? Whose house? If it's her parents home, you missed a chance to show me a daughter's connection to a dead mother. Her mum would "be" everywhere in that house; it's a tough thing for a child to return to the home after a death.

    I think sometimes we rush our opening chapters a tad. This setup has enough built-in tension (plus it's a funeral, a quiet opening) that it can support a slower pace and more detail.

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    1. I think I use the word "tad" a tad too much...:)

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  13. I'm in the "you're being too kind" camp. Even if the writer cleans up the clunky overwriting, we're still left with an opening in which too much is held back, too little is happening — and too little stylistic zip keeps me hooked. Prose need not be self-consciously showoffy, but it still must contain that pleasurable rustle that keeps our eyes moving from one sentence to the next. That's what Lee Child is a master of — a sort of carefully crafted anti-style style that provides a sly, slick underpinning to clever plotting, controlled pacing and characterizations with a richness that creeps up on you. This, by contrast, has its shoelaces tied together in every sentence.

    I didn't see enough to encourage me to read on.

    I'd like to see his writer go back and work on the basics of her craft — chief among them a) writing a good sentence; and b) writing good transitions. And c) not being too coy with plot clues. The opening has to please, not just tickle.

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  14. Submitting Author -
    Thanks for sharing your draft of page one of "The Circle". I believe a number of the TKZ comments will make your intriguing and suspenseful start better. Isn't it great to get revision-guiding input from the likes of JSB, KL, PJP, JM, et al?

    As a long time TKZ follower, I feel very uncomfortable with the previous 'critique'. I encourage you to discard what, imo, is excessive and errant negativity. Please don't let the harsh comments discourage you.
    Thanks for sharing. Good luck with revision!I would read on.

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  15. Hi, it's the author here.

    I just wanted to thank you all so much for your time and insightful feedback! I had no idea I was gerund addict. I looked at my last page, and sure enough, I'd typed "The Ending". :-) Just kidding.

    I certainly see what you are all saying: Leigh's emotional reaction didn't necessarily ring true; I was being coy by not revealing everything Leigh knew and just dropping those mysterious thoughts in from nowhere; and it was overwritten and clunky. Great suggestion to read it out loud to get a feel for that.

    I think the writing process is a bit like having your out-of-town mother-in-law come over. Sure, you vacuumed, picked up the dirty clothes, and put new sheets on the bed. But you see the black spot on the doorframe where the cat rubs itself only when she points it out. And the dirt on the baseboards. And the cobwebs in the ceiling fan.

    I feel particularly lucky that so many people commented, especially the esteemed blog hosts. Thank you all!

    And to the commenter who said it seemed like I was tying my own shoelaces together in every sentence, you are spot on. And, you made me laugh.

    Thanks again, everybody. My work is so much better for your comments. :-)

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