Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 30, 2011

Free Fall Friday – Anita Nolan


I want to thank Sprouts Magazine executive editor, Anita Nolan, for taking her valuable time to critique four of the writing prompts sent in. I think everyone can gain a lot of knowledge by reading the critiques presented and I hope more of you will give it a try.

Anita will be doing critiques at our 2012 Conference being held in June.

Here is the first one submitted:

I never thought about Maya, my shy best friend, who wouldn’t even kill a fruit fly, hurting anyone.  I especially didn’t think she would ever hurt me.  At just 5 feet, 2 inches and 113 pounds, Maya was smaller in height, weight and attitude.  At any other time and in any other place I might not have been afraid, but fighting on a beach when the forecast calls for storms can psych out even the most fearless person.

“Please don’t make me hurt you Em,” she pleaded.

Her bony fingers tightened around a fistful of my hair.  I fought to free myself.  The winds, echoing my feelings, howled as if in pain.  Wet sand pelted my face.  My eyes stung from a mixture of the salty sea water and a steady flow of tears.  I looked around for a seashell or branch.  Not that I knew what I would do if I found either one.  This had to be a bad dream.  In a few minutes I’d wake up in bed.  The scary image of my angry best friend and an even angrier ocean, a foggy memory.

A large wave knocked us both to the ground.  I made it back to my feet and took off toward the boardwalk.  Maya was right on my tail.  I pumped my legs willing them to go faster, my bare feet sinking deep into the sand.  At some point I had lost both of my shoes.  I made the mistake of looking back and screamed as she sacked me from behind.

“Give me the Terces stone now!” she yelled.

The ocean seemed to roar in response behind her.  I rolled over and clawed at Maya’s face.  My nails sank into her eyes.  I stood up and turned to run but froze when I noticed a monster wave heading right for us.

“Maya, get up, we have to go now!”

I tried to help her up from the sand.

“Don’t you understand Em?  I need that stone or I’m as good as dead.  I’m too deep into this thing to get out.”

Here is Anita:

Let me say, first, that this didn’t come through with proper formatting to me, so I’m not quite sure how the paragraphs were broken out.

Putting that aside, were you involved in the story by the end of the first page? I was. The action draws the reader in. However, the first paragraph, describing the friend, slows down the story. The description of Maya being smaller could easily have been dribbled in throughout the first page so we could get straight to the action.

I did think the first sentence was somewhat awkwardly worded, as I did with some of the others, which is a function of having to use the prompt.

I get the feeling that this story is of the type that starts with an exciting moment and then goes back in time. With the technique the story starts at a high point to draw the reader in and then goes back and gives us the information that gives the story meaning.

Another book that uses this technique is A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, if you’d like to see how it can be used effectively.

The down side with starting a story this way is that we don’t know the characters or feel anything for them before we are tossed into the action. I understand this is in response to a prompt, and the author may never touch the story again, but if she did, she would need to make a decision of whether to start with this high drama scene or start the story earlier so we can get to know and sympathize with the character before we follow her into the action.

We have some strong description, the sand pelting her face, etc., early on, but then the rest of that paragraph (at least I think it’s the rest of that paragraph) gets weaker because she talks about it being a dream and waking up. If you want to keep that, it would be better to keep the comment about thinking it’s a dream short, maybe one sentence. Do you see how it slows the pacing to talk about the dream? Probably better to keep up the drama and pacing, at least it’s something to think about.

There are some excess words here that could be cleaned up with further revision. For instance, take the sentence: “At some point I had lost both of my shoes.”
Why not say, “I’d lost my shoes.” Does “at some point” or “both” add anything to the story? This is what it means to evaluate every word in the story.

And, as to the “My nails sank into her eyes.” Ouch! I was shocked that Maya wasn’t totally out of commission after that! Again, these are things that would be caught with further revision, but points out why reading and taking in the meaning of every word, every sentence, is important. (And you have to read objectively enough to catch the things you didn’t intend, such as the infamous “His eyes fell to the table.” )

There’s some word repetition that we’d want to eliminate (three straight sentences with “up” in them.) “Up” is another of those words that can usually be eliminated without notice (what’s the difference between “I stood”, and “I stood up”, for instance. You don’t stand down, unless you are in the military.)

As to the rest, we’ve got good action, and a good sentence leading into the page turn, which will make the reader want to continue.

____________________________________________________________________

UNPREPARED

Jamie had never given much thought to what life would be like without a stove—until earlier that day. He’d never had to cook anything since his mother prepared all the meals at home, but today she wasn’t with him, and he wasn’t home. It was late morning when he was venturing along a familiar path through the woods behind his school when Jamie was drawn by a young deer. He stalked it for some time, and not until he lost sight of it did he realize he’d wandered deep into unmarked territory. He put on his hooded sweatshirt when a cold gust of autumn wind rustled his hair and the branches above him. Barely showing through the treetops, the sun was directly overhead. He’d lost all sense of direction.

By chance he walked toward a small lake. Abundant with fish, Jamie was able to catch a large one, though he struggled having to use his hands. He couldn’t imagine eating it raw, but had nothing to easily start a campfire. He recalled a movie about a castaway alone on an island in which the man, after many failed attempts, realized that to start a fire it required oxygen, not just friction between two branches. While Jamie mimicked what that character did, he imagined his father saying, “One of the few movies a family can watch together, and you learn something useful, to boot!” Though he
developed a few blisters on his fingers and palms, he was successful.

Jamie decided to stay the night by the lake since darkness descended early in late fall. Though exhausted, he had no intention of sleeping, not that he could; he was cold, hungry and scared. He wished he’d caught more fish. Now surrounded by blackness, Jamie feared a nearby animal might hear his stomach complaining loudly through the quiet. Before nightfall he gathered as many dry branches as he could find. For warmth, he planned to keep the fire going till dawn. He also hoped flames kept creatures away, but Jamie knew little about the workings of nature. The times his parents encouraged him to join the Boy Scouts, he’d always thought it was lame. It didn’t seem so lame now. Yes, that was a big mistake…

 

Here is Anita:

Oh, this is the type of story my son loves! It reminds me of Gary Paulson, Will Hobbs, etc. And ending the page with “Yes, that was a big mistake…” will intrigue the reader (and the editor or agent) and make them (we hope) turn the page.

I can see a recurring theme developing through the entries. One is the overuse of “was”. Part of that may be due to the nature of writing these first pages quickly to submit them.

Anyone with a “was” problem (or for that matter a “just” or “even” or “very” problem, should use the FIND function of your computer and highlight every one of those words, then work your way through and delete/change as many as possible. It’s rather surprising to do this and find you have used “was” or “just” in the story nearly a thousand times.

Everyone has a word or words they overuse (one of mine is “just”). Correcting the problem is “just” a matter of being aware how frequently you use the word and working on eliminating, or reducing, its use.

You will definitely want to minimize the passive “was” in a story that sounds like an action adventure. (there isn’t much active in the passive “was.”)

Let’s take a look at this sentence:

“It was late morning when he was venturing along a familiar path through the woods behind his school when Jamie was drawn by a young deer.”

First, if a sentence starts with “It was” or “There were”, there’s a pretty good chance it can be improved. (The same goes with a sentence containing “as”.) So, how can we reword this? Maybe start with description? Something to think about.

In the third paragraph, we see a telling, passive “was” again.

“Though exhausted, he had no intention of sleeping, not that he could; he was cold, hungry and scared.”

Imagine what this paragraph would look like if we were shown how the cold, hunger, and fear affected him.

We might also want to look at the verbs. Some, like “stalked”, are great. It’s a loaded word and a strong verb. Others, like “put”, not so much.

Let’s take a look at the “put” sentence,

“He put on his hooded sweatshirt when a cold gust of autumn wind rustled his hair and the branches above him.”

I would consider changing this sentence for two reasons. First, the word “when” often indicates an incorrect ordering of the sentence. In this case, the wind rustled his hair and then he put on his sweatshirt, so the sentence should be written in that order. Secondly, the word “put” is weak. He could “tug” or “pull” on his sweatshirt, and it gives the reader more of a visual.

How about this? “A bitter gust of autumn wind rustled Jamie’s hair and the branches above. The chilly air made him shiver, and he tugged a sweatshirt over his head to ward off the worst of the cold.”

Notice that I’ve used more words in my example than in the original version, which is often the case when you convert from telling to showing.

Also notice how telling the second paragraph is. Part of this is the “was”. If you were showing this paragraph, rather than telling, it might turn into a chapter.

I think this entry could benefit from separating into more paragraphs as well. It will help to make it easier to read.

In the end, I think this is a good idea that, if I were the author, I’d continue developing, if so inclined. However, at this point it reads more like a synopsis, telling what happens, rather than showing it. Again, probably a function of it being written in response to a prompt and trying to get as much in the first page as possible.

______________________________________________________________________

I had never given much thought to the destruction and suffering caused by natural disasters. Why should I? Earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes rarely occur in central west New Jersey, and besides, those things just didn’t happen to us, my beautiful mother, my father, a well-respected wealthy banker, and me, a popular, grade A student and head cheerleader at Lincoln High. Well, one tragic recent event has changed my entire outlook.

Yesterday, while riding through town in my friend Brenda’s Mustang convertible, the radio announcer interrupted our favorite song talking about a possible tornado in the area. “Who is he kidding?” I exclaimed. “We are not in Kansas!”

“Ah, ignore it,” replied Brenda.

The wind started whipping everything around us, rain pelted the car, and the sky turned a menacing grey. Brenda pushed the button to close the convertible top and we were once again secure in our world of luxury. We parked at the mall, “Let’s wait it out” suggested Brenda.

Within minutes, everything returned to normal and we ran into the mall. We walked around for a while and decided to visit our favorite store. As we entered, the clerk asked, “Brenda, Julia, did you hear? A tornado hit in town and may have killed some people.”

“Get out!” I replied. “You are always exaggerating.” Unfortunately, she was not. Not only was it true, one of the victims was my father. While stopped at a red light, a massive tree fell on his car and killed him instantly. One quick storm and my life will never be the same.

When I was little, I believed that when I turned any corner or exited any room, everything stopped. The activity in that area was no longer necessary. The world revolved around me. I realize that is just a little girl’s fantasy, but still, why me, I do not deserve this. How are we going to manage without my father? My mother is fragile, she has always depended on Dad to make most of the family decisions.

Here’s Anita:

With all the wild weather we’ve been having, this story idea seems ripped from the headlines.

The nature of this prompt and limit to first page, I think, inclines writers to tell, more than show, in an effort to get into the story as much as possible. We’ve seen that in the other entries, and it’s true here as well.

Beyond the wind whipping and the rain pelting, and a menacing sky, we readers don’t get to see much of the storm.

If you were to turn this into a book, you’d want to set up the story more. Show us the beautiful mother, the wealthy banker father, etc., before we get to the storm and the father dying. You wouldn’t want to tell us all that in the first page, as is currently the case. Of course, you’d have more space to do so.

One thing to guard against in first person is how you refer to your main character. Writing in first person is more than just writing “I did this,” “I said that.” You want to try to be the character, to think like the character would think, say what the character would say, feel what the character would feel. In this example, the character refers to herself as “a popular, grade A student and head cheerleader at Lincoln High.”

Would this character refer to herself this way? Even if she would, showing her being a good student, popular, and head cheerleader, would be more effective.

Another thing to consider in this sample are the dialogue tags. If you can’t use an action tag, (an action tag is a way to identify the speaker through their action) then “said” or “asked” are usually the best policy. Replied, responded, suggested, exclaimed, etc., get old fast and tend to stand out. “Said” tends to disappear on the page. In our story, for example: “Ah, ignore it,” replied Brenda.

A way to express this with an action tag, would be to say — Brenda shrugged. “Ah, ignore it.”

(Or, Brenda frowned, smoothed her hair, etc.) An action tag can also be used to reveal something about the character (if she checks her makeup in the rear-view mirror, or smoothes her hair, maybe she’s very concerned about her looks, for instance.) And, action tags prevent a bunch of dialogue tags from being repetitive. Of course, you don’t need a tag, either dialogue or action, with every bit of dialogue, only enough to reveal what the characters are doing (action tags) or who is speaking.

Another thing to consider are unnecessary words. We talked about these in another first page, and using the computer’s “find” function to search out your favorites. In this sample, we have “just”, “well”, “started”, that add nothing to the story. It’s important to go through your story and evaluate everything, down to every word.

What I found interesting in this first page is this:

“When I was little, I believed that when I turned any corner or exited any room, everything stopped. The activity in that area was no longer necessary. The world revolved around me. I realize that is just a little girl’s fantasy, but still, why me, I do not deserve this.”

This, to me, could be an intriguing beginning. Why not take this, and build a story from here?

___________________________________________________________________

Evee had never given much thought to how delicate the great trees were. Today, she was in deep contemplation after the 5th one dropped to its side and snapped like a toothpick would if you pushed on either end between your fingers. This one landed on the neighbors’ house. The neighbor’s dog was dead. He was sleeping by the kitchen stove when the thing landed onto the family breakfast table and his doggy bed. Only his wet soggy tail could be seen. Luckily, the neighbors’ bedroom was the furthest from the tree’s and now dog’s, grave.

It had rained for 30 days and 30 nights. The root systems of the surrounding oaks could not grasp the earth anymore. It was too muddy and too soft, and it failed them.

“Ninevee, it is time. The stories are true, you must stop this!” It was grandma Vivienne; she was trying to get me to do some weird chant that would stop the rains. I loved her, but she was as crazed as a rabid raccoon. She was grasping at straws because we were far off the path of any real civilization and her mind was failing. There were not many places in the world where you could find so much seclusion, which for the most part I did not mind. Now though, it looked like much of the valley would be washed away, along with so many of the old souls with the great green tops that guarded and shaded our homes. There would be no help. “Grandma, I told you to call me Evee, and I really don’t want to read your chant.”

“Ninevee, if you don’t do this people will die. If your mother were here she could do it, I could even, if I wasn’t so old…” She was persistent with the family genealogy, with all the enchantments surrounding our female pedigree. I heard it all before, “Ninevee, you are from a long line of descendants from the Lady of the Lake. In times of great need, we can come to the aid of mankind.” It made me sad to think they had to conjure up these stories, ripped from pages of old books, probably to make me feel like my mom’s death had some special meaning, like I was special.

Here is Anita:

Well, this certainly draws a reader in, especially when we get to the neighbor’s dog being dead. And we quickly learn that there’s likely some magic coming. It’s always good to identify what type of book we’re dealing with in the first page, and this does that.

The first thing I noticed that could use improvement, an easy fix, is the paragraphing. There are several reasons for breaking this page up more. First, it increases the amount of white space on the page (which makes it easier to read.) It also brings emphasis to some events, comments, etc.

The first sentence to break out would be: The neighbor’s dog was dead.
The dead dog was a shock, or at least a surprise, and it would be good to give the sentence some emphasis. Right now it’s hidden in the middle of a paragraph.

By making it into its own paragraph, you give it the emphasis it deserves. And while I’ll touch on reducing the number of passive/weak words/verbs (was, were, would, could) later, in the case of The neighbor’s dog was dead, I’d keep it exactly the way it is. Using a loaded word (a word that evokes an emotional response, such as kiss, love, murder, knife—or dead) as the last word of a sentence or a paragraph, etc, gives it the most emphasis. Using loaded words at the end of paragraphs, scenes, chapters, when possible, pulls the reader through the story.

By the way, I thought it was interesting the way the dog’s death draws the reader in, but it isn’t the focus, which is the rain. The dog’s death is the device to get us interested. Well done. (And I wondered if we might find out anything else about the neighboring family and the dog.)

The rest of the story needs to be broken into more paragraphs as well. In what is currently the second paragraph, the grandmother’s bit of dialogue needs to be separated into a different paragraph from Evee’s dialogue.

And, as to the “was” issue. I went through and highlighted all the “was”es and “were”s that were used in the first page. There are at least 13. This passivity reduces the connection with the reader and the immediacy of the story. If you get rid of the “was” sentences, (as well as many of the “would”s and “could”s, which often weaken a sentence) you’ll find that the writing is cleaner, and your word count will likely drop.

The sentence about the tree’s and dog’s grave bothered me, because the kitchen wasn’t the dog’s grave (or the tree’s for that matter.) The dog’s grave is where it is buried, not where it died.
As to the paragraph that describes the grandmother as a rabid raccoon and then as grasping at straws. I don’t know that you need both of these, and the grasping at straws is rather clichéd so I might leave that behind.

In this same paragraph, I thought it rather odd that Evee is describing the place where they live as being so secluded, but yet a tree had just fallen on a neighbor’s house. I’m not sure which way you want this to work, but if they live in near total seclusion, you might want to explain how they happen to have a neighbor. Maybe mention that this is their only neighbor for miles, or something, and that might help with a segway into the grandmother’s craziness.

The other thing I’d do is reduce the wordiness. Make sure every word is working to show the story. Tell us information once, and do it well. Have confidence that the reader will get the meaning of your words without repetition.

Thanks again, Anita.

Stop back next week for a new prompt.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. As usual, these critiques are SO informative, educational and enjoyable! First, thank you, Anita, for taking the time to do this for us 🙂 And, of course, there’s always thanks to Kathy for initiating all this!

    Anita, I agreed with all your comments, for sure. The one thing I never saw as an issue, though, was “was.” I’ve always considered that a basic word like “said” or “is,” etc. I’ll certainly be more conscious of it now!

    You’re very right about certain things being a factor in the 23-line limitation of a first page. It’s very frustrating when just one letter, if on the wrong line, can push you onto page 2! It tends to make it more difficult to include dialogue, depending on how it’s done, and paragraphing takes up more lines, too 🙂 Guaranteed these are big factors. Also, I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t decide to write mine ‘til the day it was due when Kathy put up a reminder, and also posted the next prompt lol

    On the “put” sentence, I originally had “slipped” on his sweatshirt, but it sounded more like a banana peel incident lol It was nearing the midnight deadline, so “put” was the first thing that came to mind. I personally like “pull” better, as you suggested. I also prefer your rearrangement of the phrases in that sentence. When I was analyzing it, I was more in the mindset of trying to pull the reader to “look” toward the branches at the end of the sentence for the thought to flow into the treetops with the sun barely showing through. For sure, the way you phrased it is better, though, as a sentence 🙂

    I also never knew that “when” is a good indicator of an incorrect order of the sentence! Great tip! There were LOTS of great tips in all the critiques! Thank you so much 🙂
    Donna

    Like

  2. Thanks, Donna. One thing I learned from entering a lot of writing contests back in the day was that you can almost always get to a good page break, whether the limit is one page or five or ten. Having the page limit forces you to write leaner, and it’s a good exercise.
    I used to think that I’d change my story just for the contest, and go back to my original version. But I realized after a while that I didn’t need the extra words most of the time.

    Like


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