July 27th, 2018

First Page Critique

I chose this month's first page to explain writing tight. I am a 'spare writer', meaning that I cut every unnecessary word, so the read is fast and easy. If a word doesn't tell the reader something they don't know in a compelling way, out it goes. I'm not saying that you have to cut as close to the bone as I, but I hope the following example convinces you to trim some unneeded adjectives and 'filter words' from your prose. They litter the read - they're over the top - like the author saying, 'I really, really mean this'. Your reader trusts that if you say it once, you mean it. 

I learn best by seeing transformations in examples, So let's dig in.

Thank you, brave soul, for trusting me with your work. I hope you find this helpful.

Here's the original:

Sane people don't do these types of things. The words screamed loudly in my brain, yet they could not drown out the utterly irrational and ridiculous action I was about to take.
Freezing drizzle pelted my cheeks and slapped me back to reality. With the high winds whipping rapidly under and over the canvas canopy at the facility’s entrance, the black awning fringe forcefully ushered me in. A pounding chill went down the back of my coat, and I shivered uncontrollably as it made its way throughout my body. It was a well-timed irony that the bitter and icy November weather reflected the mood I had been in ever since reading the documents that were never meant for my eyes.
 
It was accidentally discovering that mind-numbing, career-ending information that sent me on my preemptive path to Deer Ridge Psychiatric Hospital. Plus, I needed a place to hide out for the time being while I thought about how best to halt my pending termination. And, to plot my revenge against David Wolfe, my duplicitous boss who has also been my friends with benefits lover for as many years as I have been with Ashford Industries.
 
I paused at the front door for a moment to try to tamp down my conflicting emotions over what I was about to do. I once again began to question my sanity. I did really need to be here, didn’t I? I’ve heard it been said that there is a little bit of craziness in all of us. I guess it was the appropriate time for my crazy to have emerged—a fortunate coincidence in a most unfortunate situation.
Fighting against the high winds to open the heavy, oversized ornate wooden door, I was within inches from entering when a strong gust opened the door for me, which quickly propelled me against the side of the building. A loud banging sound reverberated through the air as my entire backside knocked against the large glass window. Catching myself just in time on the window ledge, I narrowly escaped falling face down in the already dead Forsythia bushes in which I had landed. As I brushed the frozen leaves off my jacket, I stepped forward only to see that the high heel of my boot was caught onto a small branch. Balancing on one leg to try and untangle myself, I ended up face, hands, and knees soaked with slushy mud. It was then that I heard a rustling in the bushes. Looking over my shoulder a young woman hovered over me. She put her hand in mine to pull me up, and said with a smile, “You must be Ms. Barnett. We’ve been expecting you.”
 
My edits:

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered

Sane people don’t do these types of things. The words screamed loudly in my brain, yet they could not drown out the utterly irrational and ridiculous action I was about to take. Three adjectives and two adverbs in the second sentence of the story are way too many. See how this says, 'I really, really, mean it'? The first line is a thought. We know that because you used italics. So you don't need 'in my brain' - that's where thoughts happen. But even more, you're telling us about something that hasn't happened yet, which can be confusing to the reader, and keeps them at a distant POV. Show us that the action is ridiculous, instead of telling us it is.  I'd cut the entire second line. Trust your reader to get it!
 
  Freezing drizzle pelted my cheeks, slapping and slapped me back to reality. I like this sentence, but it raises a question; where has the character been that was away from reality? We've only had one thought, which takes a nanosecond to think, so unless you show us, or mention what she (I'm assuming it's a she) has been doing - that she's wet to the skin and shivering from standing out in the cold so long, the 'back to reality' doesn't make a lot of sense to us - see what I mean?
 
With the high winds whipping rapidly under and over the canvas canopy at the facility’s entrance, the black awning fringe forcefully ushered me in. A pounding chill went down the back of my coat, and I shivered uncontrollably as it made its way throughout my body. It was a well-timed irony that the bitter and icy November weather reflected the mood I had been in ever since reading the documents that were never meant for my eyes.
 
I know it's considered okay now to start a sentence with a preposition, but I'd only use it for impact. Since we're so early in the read, it doesn't help here. Your instincts are right; you needed to set the scene a bit, to show the reader where they are. But more compelling than just showing us the scene - show us what it means to your CHARACTER. Does she dread walking in? Why? As it is, we're just seeing a 'facility' (as school? A government building? See how we don't know?  Also, the paragraph is slowed with adverbs and unncessesay adjectives. We all know how that a shiver is uncontrollable, and how it works - you don't need to explain. The ending is a perfect example of raising good questions in the reader's mind that will lure them into the read to find out more. Well done!
 
Let me try to rewrite to illustrate what I mean. I know the details won't be right - but see if this is more compelling - raising even more questions in the reader's mind:
 
The black canopy over the entrance flapped in the fitful wind, the fringe beckoning me closer. A shiver rattled down my spine. I hadn't been looking for a new career path, but that was before the seismic shift, when I read the documents never meant for my eyes.
 
It was accidentally discovering that mind-numbing, career-ending information that sent me on my preemptive path to Deer Ridge Psychiatric Hospital. Plus, I needed a place to hide out for the time being while I thought about how best to halt my pending termination. And, to plot my revenge against David Wolfe, my duplicitous boss who has also been my friends with benefits lover for as many years as I have been with Ashford Industries.
 
The above is all backstory, shoehorned in. You raised a question at the end of the last paragraph, then immediately answered it - see how that isn't incentive for the reader to read on? Instead, I'd just drop another hint:
 
The Deer Ridge Psychiatric hospital loomed over me, more like a portent of doom than the beacon of my future. But David, my lover and boss at Ashford Industries, made staying impossible. I took the few steps to the front door.
 
I paused at the front door for a moment to try to tamp down my conflicting emotions over what I was about to do. I once again began to question my sanity. I did really need to be here, didn’t I? I’ve heard it been said that there is a little bit of craziness in all of us. I guess it was the appropriate time for my crazy to have emerged—a fortunate coincidence in a most unfortunate situation.
 
See how the above is all a repeat? Saying something twice doesn't convince your reader you mean it; instead, they come away with the impression that you think they're too dumb to get it! If you feel like you need to repeat, I'd make the case that it's because you're not happy with the paragraph where you said it the first time. Go back and fix that line, instead. Also, read the thought out loud. See how we don't think in past tense? If you feel you need it, the correct line would be: I do need to be here, don't I?
 
But I'd cut the entire paragraph - it slows the read, and doesn't tell us anything new.
 
Fighting against the high winds to open the heavy, oversized ornate wooden door, I was within inches from entering when a strong gust opened the door for me, which quickly propelled me against the side of the building. A loud banging sound reverberated through the air as my entire backside knocked against the large glass window. Catching myself just in time on the window ledge, I narrowly escaped falling face down in the already dead Forsythia bushes in which I had landed. As I brushed the frozen leaves off my jacket, I stepped forward only to see that the high heel of my boot was caught onto a small branch. Balancing on one leg to try and untangle myself, I ended up face, hands, and knees soaked with slushy mud. It was then that I heard a rustling in the bushes. Looking over my shoulder a young woman hovered over me. She put her hand in mine to pull me up, and said with a smile, “You must be Ms. Barnett. We’ve been expecting you.”
 
You spent a long time explaining something that happened very fast. If something happens fast, to convey that to the reader, you need short, simple, staccato sentences. I'm still a bit unsure of the physicality of what happened. The wind pulled the door from her hand, and she falls (I'm not clear how or why), then you mention glass windows, which I hadn't pictured there, because you didn't mention them before. You say she narrowly escaped falling in the bushes where she landed....Did she fall in them, or not? See how this is conflicting? She's looking over her shoulder at the rustling bushes, then you mention the woman, so we assume the woman was IN the bushes. Is she? 
 
To describe a scene well, I find it's best to 'act it out' - I often find what works well in my mind, is impossible in reality. Try it - it might help with this.
 
This has the potential to be a riveting beginning - if you cut, cut, cut.  
 

What say you, WITS readers? Do you have a hard time 'writing tight'?

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ABOUT LAURA:

Did you know that Laura does craft podcasts? They're short, dorky fun, shot in different locations, and usually include a rant. You can check them out on her website: HERE

41 responses to “First Page Critique”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    Great post with illustrations that pack a punch. Do you do editing on the side? 🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Jeez, Irtrovi, I can't stand doing edits on my OWN work! No way! i DO teach a 'First 5 Pages' class though - a 2 week class where we go over your pages....

      I'll be teaching it next at Lawsons Writer Academy, Sept. 10th thru 23rd.

  2. Wendy Pearson says:

    Just what I needed to read and hear. An excellent example of how to cut your writing to the bone and make the prose pop. Writing the first five pages and particularly the first page is something I think we as writers all struggle with.This helped me a lot.

  3. Juneta says:

    That was a very impressive and helpful critique.

  4. crbwriter says:

    I tend to write a spare first draft, then add too many details, and eventually end up (with the help of a crit group) settling on a version that is clear and tight. Reading aloud--sometimes while gesturing my way through a scene--are two keys to finding "just right."

  5. scribelady says:

    Thanks, Laura. I appreciate that you showed the original, then your comments and edits. It's always helpful for me to see examples.

  6. scribelady says:

    Thanks, Laura, for the original, your comments and edits. I need examples to make things clearer.

    I submit devotionals and articles to Chicken Soup books. I find that writing to enforced word counts is disciplining me to write tighter.

  7. Christine says:

    Laura, you sure do know how to cut to the bone, and it's fantastic-- what every writer needs to know. I know much of what you're talking about, but it's a completely different thing to execute it in writing. It's usually the editing that catches some of it, but even then my 'lovely details and descriptions' slip by me. Thanks for the reminder - great post!!

  8. I read and edited before I looked at Laura's suggestions and except for a couple of words, we both picked up on the same things. I am intrigued by the opening but found myself a bit impatient to read through some of what is there to get to the end. But then, I'm a cut to the bone kind of writer as well, except on occasions and for a purpose. But it does sound like an interesting story!

    • Laura Drake says:

      If you haven't seen it yet, Sandy, I highly recommend skipping back to Lisa Hall Wilson's post from last Wed. She explains how to use POV to speed up and slow down your read.

      It's brilliant!

  9. Jenny Hansen says:

    Those first five pages are always hard. So. Damn. Hard. I always love to see how brilliante you are with them.

  10. Excellent post! The edits are spot on for this contemporary piece. I would love to hear your thoughts on writing in a historical period prior to 1900.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Linda, I don't write historical, so I'm not sure I'm the person to ask, but the rules are the same for any fiction genre - Except you have more world-building to do, and I'd guess that your readers would give you more leeway with scene-setting than mine would. But the most important thing is to introduce your main character quickly, and to show the reader why they should care about your protagonist.

      Thanks for reading!

  11. Nan Lundeen says:

    It's good to be reminded of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. For instance, toward the end, we read about "slushy mud." Is there any other kind? Thanks for a helpful post.

  12. barbdelong says:

    Awesome edits, Laura! Always learn from your First Page Critiques!

  13. littlemissw says:

    Fantastic edit. It's a great beginning to a story and you made it that much better.

    I tend to write spare too. So spare that I come up short on words - I write YA, how hard is it to come up with 55000 words - and then have to add stuff in. However, I find that I make the same mistake that a lot of writers who 'over write' do - I know exactly why the character has done something but I haven't given enough clues to the reader and they're left with a 'huh' feeling.

    Brilliant as always Laura.

  14. This was an awesome edit. Great explanations as well. I learned lots from this. Yes, I'm signing up for your workshop in September!

  15. dholcomb1 says:

    I received some similar advice on some feedback recently. Loved the example's before and after.

    denise

  16. Love love LOVE this post. Reposted on my FoxPrint FB page. Excellent, clear advice, Laura. (And brava to a certain guinea pig for sharing her wonderful opening pages...)

  17. Sally Jadlow says:

    I've learned to write tight for so long it's hard to strrrreeeettttccchh a piece. I find poetry writing helps to learn to wright tight.

  18. Sally Jadlow says:

    OOPS! Right tight, not wright tight! =)

  19. Sally Jadlow says:

    OOPS.2! Write not right or wright! This must be a bad hair day!

  20. Ann G. says:

    Laura, I'm a spare writer too. I thought your editing comments were right on. The story looks intriguing, though, to the writer reading through these comments. I want to know more!

  21. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for the excellent post, Laura. Very helpful, as always...

  22. Julie Glover says:

    Great suggestions! It's so hard to get that opening right, but so important.

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