Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Page Critique: MATCHES

Today's post features a first-page excerpt sent to me from an adult novel entitled MATCHES. (These excerpts sent for critique don't have to be middle grade or young adult, but I'm more familiar with MG/YA.)


Keller focused in on his face and let his eyes in the mirror examine it. Every detail seemed to mock him like a stranger scraping away at the surface, wanting and needy to have every facet naked and discovered. He was so plain. Pale and light, and his eyes looked too old for his smooth skin. Boring holes in the glass, his old self cried to be free from this boring face that hadn’t experienced anything he had yet to experience. Help me, his eyes said. His mouth told his eyes to screw off and go back to sleep.

His hair was bright red; a color which defied the rest of him as his clothes usually wore the black of mourning like a cloaked dawn, waiting and ominous, only just serving the purpose of starting out a day. Keller hated mornings. This was usually the only time he looked in the mirror, so he did it justice by hating it with every fiber of his being. After that he used the rest of the day to forget he was himself and didn’t think about the way he looked at all. Sometimes he was able to fool himself into self-love.


Wording and Little Things
1. The first sentence says Keller is looking with eyes that are IN the mirror. That's technically impossible. Might be clearer to put the phrase "in the mirror" earlier: Keller focused in on his face in the mirror and let his eyes examine it.
2. It should be "Wanting and needing" in the second sentence, rather than "Wanting and needy." (The writer says she meant to say needy, but in order to have that make sense, the last phrase would have to be omitted or placed in another sentence: to have every facet naked and discovered.)
3. "Boring" is repeated twice in the fifth sentence. But perhaps this is intentional, to make a contrast and play on words.
4. "Help me" could be set apart by italics or quotes. I'd go for italics.
5. The use of the semi-colon is incorrect in the first sentence of the second paragraph; it should be a comma. Semi-colons connect two related, independent sentences/clauses that can stand on their own--such as how I just used it in the previous sentence.

Other Things
1. Looking into a mirror is a cliché way of describing a main character. In this instance, there is purpose for Keller's looking and self-examination, but many agents and editors groan when they see a character being described by mirror gazing. It's best to avoid it.
2. "Boring holes in the glass" initially is confusing, at least to me. I read "boring" as an adjective (as in tedious, yawners) that described holes, rather than a verb to indicate the action of drilling holes. Also, the sentence technically says that his old self is doing the boring, which I'm not sure is the intention.
3. "Keller hated mornings"--it may be better to show he hated them rather than a direct statement telling that he did. Ditto for the last two sentences; let's SEE him using the rest of the day to forget he was himself and not think about the way he looked.
Summary: Kudos
There is some very interesting self-analysis going on here, delving into this character's mind. We get a good sense of who he is, and what his internal thoughts are. I particularly like these sentences: This was usually the only time he looked in the mirror, so he did it justice by hating it with every fiber of his being. AND Pale and light, and his eyes looked too old for his smooth skin. Great descriptions and thoughts there.

PS: Blogger is being ornery the last couple of weeks; the blue I use to help readers skim the post is NOT showing up. Mumble, grumble. So I had to use bold here instead.

Can you add any other helpful comments to the above critique?
Have you ever described your character by having them look into a mirror?
What other, more natural ways can you let the reader know what your main character looks like?


  1. I agree with all your comments, Carol. I was very concerned with starting off looking in a mirror... not a good idea. And the first sentence is off. SHould be, "Keller focused on his reflection in the mirror, examining every last detail ..." or something of the like. I also feel like these two paragraphs drone on a bit about how much he hates himself... why will we like spending time with this character if he hates himself so much?
    Only mean these as constructive, never insulting. :)

  2. I like Keller as a character. I'd like to get to know him more, but I agree with not starting off a novel this way. I know it probably hurts to hear it, but I'd like to meet Keller immersed in the life that is troubling him so much.

    The writing itself is strong. I don't doubt the writer can make this a far better opening.

  3. Agents don't like you to describe your character by using the mirror, but I also think he's focusing too much on his appearance in the beginning. The writer hasn't made me care enough about him to want to read more. I hate to say this, but I was already losing interest in him by the second paragraph--only to find more description.

  4. I gotta say, I don't love the idea of starting a novel by having the character wax lyrical over his appearance in a mirror. I'm also not sure how many men would comment on their own skin being smooth, that feels like a distinctly female phrase. I'd be tempted to emphasise the difference between his old eyes and young skin by saying it was untarnished or something less pretentious sounding.

    I did just write a brief sentence (during the all is lost moment, not on the first page) where my character looks at herself in the mirror but she only describes her bugged out eyes and lanky hair which she proceeds to chop off so there is a point to it. Still, I didn't love using that particular technique. Great critique, Carol.
    - Sophia.

  5. Read the first sentence, skipped straight to the crit. Was a little surprised how easy you went on the writer. Gave it a second try. Still don't care about the character, sorry...

  6. I thought this was a good critique, very fair. If you have a good reason for using something that is generally considered a cliche, then fine. I'm not sure looking in the mirror works here, however. This excerpt strikes me as being a competent character sketch that the writer should use for reference. But I definitely think it should be cut off from the beginning. I do like the character and want more specifics about his story problem. For example, how does he forget himself during the day? Is he supposed to be getting ready for work, or what? In any case, good use of language, good voice.

    Thank you for posting this critique, and thank you to the author for being brave enough to put it out there.

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  8. Yeah, I usually find that mirror-gazing brings a manuscript to a screeching halt. It's a cliche for a reason--it's the easiest way to describe a character from their own point of view--but it's still a cliche.

    I usually find that the best way to describe a character usually lies within the character itself. For instance, if you have a really insecure character, you might learn more about what she looks like when she's mentally comparing herself to the most popular girl in school. If you can use the actual method of description to reveal something to the reader about your character, it stops being a pedestrian paragraph listing physical features and becomes much more interesting.

  9. I have to agree with everyone else about not starting off this way. I do have a scene later in my current wip where the MC is looking in the mirror but I don't use it to describe her looks at all. She's looking for something in her eye. :)

  10. Ha, you pretty much caught everything I picked up on (and more).
    Thanks for another informative post :)

  11. Great comments, Carol! I, too, had the same thought about the mirror. I've been called out on that one, myself. It's such an easy fallback to get that character descrip out. Maybe have another comment on an aspect of the way the MC looks, bring it up in dialogue, associate with an action they perform...some ideas.

    Although - for some reason, as I read this, I was getting a sense that the MC is in a new body that he's trying to get used to?? I could be way off...but, if that's the case? Hmmm...maybe the mirror thing could work...


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