Writers in the Storm

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November 23, 2018

First Page Critique

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

I chose this month's submission to explain the difference between 'good questions' you can leave readers with, and 'not good questions', and how to use emotion effectively in your writing.

A friend had a suggestion for me on these — to show the original in its entirety, then show my edits. Because he looks at the original first, does what edits he sees, then looks at my analysis to see how much he picked up (and what I missed). That seems a brilliant learning tool!

Here we go:

My edits:

Black = original

Red = my thoughts/comments

Purple = text I added/altered


Heather Holbrook cried softly as she sat hidden in a dark corner of the Denver bar sipping a beer. The doctor’s unexpected words echoed through her brain triggering feelings of hopelessness and reminding her that life was not always fair. Listening to the details of her own medical problem was tougher than she’d imagined. The timing of this depressing news was off. Way off.

Staring down into her drink, she observed one of her tears drop into the golden liquid. The idiom Crying in your beer was no longer an idle saying, but rather her new reality.  Still, she wanted no part of the pitiful sensation overtaking her body. That was not her style.

She tried like hell to snap out of it, though lecturing herself had little effect. Action. She needed to take some action, do something, anything. Heather knew from experience that if a funk saturated with negativity lingered at her feet long enough, she’d sink downward and become one with that funk.

She’d been there once before and vowed never to return. How would she cope with this devastating, life altering situation? This was far more personal, and, as her friends had said, she wasn’t getting any younger. Could she find happiness knowing what she knows? Saving others came naturally; saving herself, not so much.

The sound of multiple sirens zooming by outside caught her attention. Instinctively, her adrenalin flowed. She stood, ready. Then remembered. She was off-duty.

Waving the waitress over and ordering another beer was the only action she’d come up with. For the moment, it beat going home to an empty apartment.

There's some great stuff here - some great lines. But to me, the whole thing is awash in emotion, and we don't know why. What was her diagnosis? If you tell us, we can share her funk, worry and despair. But by not telling us, the author is saying, "trust me, this is really bad." Readers won't trust you. They want to experience the heroine's journey, and they can't without knowing what's wrong with her. It's an example of a 'bad question' a reader can have. There are tons of 'good questions' — for example, we can guess she's involved in the medical or emergency profession somehow — maybe a paramedic? Or perhaps a cop? I'm okay not knowing that right up front — it makes me want to read on, to discover the answer. But you've laid out the character's problem, but been coy about not telling us what it is. Readers get angry when they feel toyed with. 

How much better would it be if you told us what the diagnosis is — if it's terminal, you have instant empathy. If it's debilitating, especially if she has a very active job, it could be even worse! The reader wants to feel, but in the absence of knowledge, the emotion seems overdone.

I think it needs tightening as well. Telling us over and over won't convince a reader.

I'm going to try to rewrite — and I'm making an assumption about her diagnosis that may not be right. But roll with me here:

In a dark corner of a Denver bar, Heather Holbrook sipped her beer, trying to hold hopelessness at bay. The doctor's horrific acronym echoed through her brain. How could two innocent letters combine to such cruelty? MS.  

As if that wasn't bad enough, the timing of this news was off. Way off.

A tear dropped into the golden liquid in her glass, proving that crying in your beer wasn't an old saying; it was her new reality.

Saving others came naturally; saving herself? Not so much.

Action. She needed to do something, anything. She knew from experience that if this mood lingered long enough, she’d become one with the funk.

A siren's wail outside jerked her to her feet, heart speeding, spreading an overload of adrenaline. Then remembered. She was off-duty. 

She waved the waitress over and ordered another beer she didn't really want. But it beat going home to an empty apartment.

I've pulled out a bunch of the emotion, because if we know what the diagnosis is, you don't need to tell us, you've shown us. We get it.

What do you think? Do you relate more, empathize more with the character? Any other tips for this writer?

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26 comments on “First Page Critique”

    1. And I squee, seeing you commenting on it, Tiffany! To me, these micro page changes are easy...the hard part is the 'big picture' developmental edits that you do!

  1. I remember doing that with the first book I wrote: trying to create tension by withholding information. But it definitely brings the reader in more, and it's much deeper POV, to just tell us what the character would be thinking. And they wouldn't play cat-and-mouse with their own info. They wouldn't tell us everything, because we don't think like that. But whether the diagnosis is MS, cancer, coronary disease, whatever—those words run through your brain. Thanks for another great critique, Laura! And thanks to another brave soul who submitted this entry—some fabulous writing in there!

    1. You're right, Julie - they have good writing ability - I didn't have to change hardly anything - just pull the emotional 'meat' and clear the unneeded. Very good writer!

  2. Terrific edit, Laura! I knew the original needed a haircut and you showed how much to take off the top and sides. Thankful to those who submit their work for critique!

  3. Your "plastic surgery" on this submission really pulled it together, Laura. Thanks for showing us that less can be more, if we trust our readers.

    1. If there was ONE thing I could impart to writers that would make the biggest impact on their writing, it would be to trust their readers, Fae. Readers are scouring the page, especially in the very beginning, looking for clues of where they are, who's in the scene, and what's at stake, that they get it waaaaay earlier than we think they do!

  4. I like telling us (readers) the diagnosis so we can empathize right away. If you wait and the health issue is not as big as we imagined, it might cause the reader to put the book down.
    Thanks for the tip. Both stories were good, so I thank the author for sharing also.

  5. As always, your changes fill me with that How Does David Copperfield DO That feeling. K.I.S.S, of course, but you do so much more. The shaved down version evokes so much more the urgency of Start-where-everything-changes and the punches of emotion wracking the heroine. Wow. Just wow.

  6. I always love your first page critiques, Laura. I learn so much. Now, I have a question. Is it OK to tell the reader something (as in the heroine's medical issue) that perhaps none of the other characters know about until later? Just wondering. Loved the pace of your rewrite, too.

    1. Yes, Cricket! Since we're in her POV, and she may not have told anyone yet. In fact, it can deepen the plot, and the emotion, if she's struggling alone.

  7. I hate to be the curmudgeon in the crowd, but honesty is valuable to a serious writer and I think the submitter is. The original version and even the rewrite still suffers from three major problems.

    1. It's all backstory that would have much more impact if we knew the character and actually cared about her. The changes help empathize, but I still don't care. Who is she and why is she worthy of her own story?

    2. She is alone in her head for all but the end. There is no interaction and no real tension, just her grief. How does this problem effect her life, job, and the other people she cares about. What is at stake?

    3. By starting with this scene, we only see Heather as a victim of some condition. Victims are cry babies. Heroes buck up. Think about a boxing match on television. if all we see is the knockout, well its interesting, but if we know the boxers and have emotions for one or both, we know what the knockout means.
    Years ago Sugar Ray Leonard fought Thomas 'The Hitman' Hearns. Neither had ever lost a fight. Several titles were on the line. After many rounds of back and forth, Leonard really hit Hearns. Thomas held onto the upper rope dazed, staggering. He didn't know he was beaten. He didn't know how to loose. It was a poignant moment. To this day, I care about Hearns. Wouldn't it be great to have readers care that much about Heather?

    Fix: Chapter one should start with Heather on her job (Cop, Reporter, Medic, etc) and in danger so we can get to know her as a brave person, the kind of person who runs toward danger and not away from it. Why do some people really are her friends and why others might hate her. Also, this would give you the opportunity to foreshadow the doctor's visit. This would build tension.
    Use this scene as the beginning of chapter two. Think about the additional impact if we know what she could be losing. Change the scene to the doctors office as he is telling her the diagnosis. Boom! Stretch it out and you have suspense. The reader will then have a reason to be concerned for her and care about the story. And most important, read the next page.

    General: You writing is smooth, tracks well, and makes sense. Character, location, and emotion all come through. And the sense of a break from her normal situation comes through. Now you have to manipulate the reader to elicit the emotion you intend.

    1. Brian, you raise some good points, and after reading your comment, the author may decide to do that. But the appropriateness of the beginning also depends on the genre of the novel. If this author is writing an action/adventure, thriller or mystery, your beginning would be better. If this is a romance, or women's fiction (protagonist's emotional journey), this is a perfectly good beginning.

      This is a sequel scene. Here's the definition of scene & sequel: Scenes propel a story forward as the character attempts to achieve a goal. Sequels provide an opportunity for the character to react to the scene, analyze the new situation, and decide upon the next course of action.

      You want a book to begin with a scene. But sequel scenes are important too, to give context to the scene. Putting the sequel as the first scene - as long as it's not too long (this is one page) works fine.

      This isn't backstory - she's in the bar now, rejecting on what just happened. And you're right, the POV character IS a victim of the disease. How she deals with it, possibly even rises above it, is what will propel the reader through the book.

      As long as the next scene is action and starts her on that journey, I personally am fine with the beginning.

  8. Just a novice query here: could Laura's last comment and Brian's recommendations be a preferential difference of male vs female readers (editors, publishers...) As a female currently working on a male antagonist character...I wonder if Brian's recommendations fit (or not) for my male character first page. Just a "hmm" not really a right/wrong opinion here.

    1. Just right, Karen. That's what I meant by, it depends on the book's genre -

      Which equates to the question: Who is your target audience? You could be writing from the hero's POV, but if you're writing a romance, the first scene will be different than a 'Rambo' type men's book.

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