Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hypothetical Story Beginning: Critique

I'm envisioning a goal of posting critiques two or three times a week. I'll go for two for now, probably Mondays and Thursdays. Below, I've written up a hypothetical story beginning for a writing/editing example.


She had arrived for the summer.

Jane Brownwell looked around her crossly, putting her suitcase down. Here she was at last after a long hot bus ride, and Aunt's May's house looked very boring. Across from the dining room window was a table, round and plain. Faded doilies were placed across the top of the couch. Another doily was spread out under a collection of flowers in a vase, on the coffee table. Most of the flowers in the vase were wilted and droopy. The couch was a mess, all saggy and stained with tea.

It was horrible! How was she expected to stay here for an entire summer?

This is an okay passage, pretty introspective. It introduces conflict, albeit a tired and overused theme of arriving somewhere new for the summer and hating it. Kinda cliche, really, like opening your novel with your main character waking up in the morning. Action or dialogue or something more lively would need to be introduced soon hereafter. As far as writing style, it could be written a lot more colorful and interesting, as I will illustrate.

Personally I have an issue with the name Jane. I admit it. I'd change the name to something more youthful and current. Google-search "names for girls" but don't choose the faddishly popular ones or your book may become dated and oh-so-last-year. The next thing that jumps out in this passage is the use of "crossly." Only use adverbs (clue: most end in "ly") when absolutely necessary. Adverbs usually indicate TELLING rather than SHOWING. The writer needs to show that Jane is cross by actions, rather than telling the reader that she is. The next verb is "putting" which is serviceable but it could be more active and used to play a role in SHOWING that Jane is put-out. I'll give an example of this fix later.

Next, take a look at all the weak "to be" verbs in this paragraph. Tons of them, very common when (beginner) writers start describing things. These "was" and "were" verbs are passive, and it's good to swap these out for more active, vibrant verbs. Even "stood" and "lay" are more active than was and were. It's not that you can't ever have a "was" or "were" in your passages (and sometimes the simplicity of was is preferred), but like adverb usage, make sure they are absolutely necessary. The entire structure of most sentences here is passive-- the subject is not doing the placing, spreading; i.e., they "were placed" or "were spread."


She had arrived for the summer.

Lacey Brownwell dropped her suitcase with a thump, and glared at the inside of Aunt May's house. BO-ring. Not much to look at, and certainly not worth the sweaty eight-hour bus ride getting here. A plain round table stood across from the dining room window, while faded doilies draped themselves like limp and bedraggled butterflies across the back of a tea-stained couch. The vase of flowers on the coffee table pinned yet another sad doily to the coffee table. The flowers drooped, wilted beyond recognition.

Horrible. Her mother expected her to stay here for an entire summer?

More active sentences here, in that the subjects are doing the actions--the table stands, the doilies drape, the vase pins, the flowers droop. Notice that I add specific details, like an 8-hour bus ride rather than a "long" one. A sweaty bus ride versus a hot one. Her mother's involvement at the end. I've also added a simile with the butterfly-like doilies, which is likely more memorable than passively placed doilies or any of the other living room descriptions. The adverb crossly has been omitted, showing instead that Lacey is upset by the actions of dropping her suitcase with a thump, and glaring.

The doilies also serve as a narrative interpretation of how Lacey is feeling or viewing her new surroundings. The narration can be a filter through which the setting is viewed through the main character's eyes. Pinning a sad doily mirrors/suggests something happening against her will, limp and bedraggled is probably how she feels after a sweaty 8-hour bus ride.

And the changes didn't affect the word count much. The first example was 109 words, the second 103--using basically the same information, just assembled differently! I combined sentences and cut out some repetition (in a vase, in the vase), so that even with adding my longer butterfly simile, I didn't affect the total length.

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