Welcome to our blog on critiques and critiquing. In our last blog we looked at some of the reasons for having a critique partner or group. This time around we’re going to look at how a critique partner can help you get off to the right start on your story and how you can help your critique partners get off to a lively beginning.
They say that the opening paragraph, whether it be one word, one sentence, or one paragraph is the most important part of the novel. Why is this so? What do those few words do?
First and foremost those opening lines need to grab the reader’s attention. Often people standing at a book stand or in a book store might read the back cover, but they also look at the opening page – the opening line.
I knew opening that red door would destroy my life. This is how mystery author Harlan Coben begins his bestseller, Caught.
Benita Sanchez was almost as afraid of running into a rattlesnake as she was U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That is the beginning of bestselling author, Brenda Novak’s romantic suspense book, Body Heat.
In both these cases, you want to keep on reading. You want to find out what is behind that red door and you want to find out what happens to Benita and whether she encounters that snake or the border patrol.
What else can those opening lines do?
• set the genre
• tell the reader the tone of the book, happy, sad, a mystery, an action story, etc...
• convey your voice - an invisible thing that the reader will either love or close the book in haste saying, “oh, that’s not what I like to read.”
• set the time and setting of the story
• introduce the main character
• bring forward the problem
But who is this mysterious “they” we mentioned at the beginning?
At the far end of the “they” is the agent, the editor or the publisher.
At the other end of the “they” is your critique group.
As a fresh set of eyes they can provide help for your opening paragraphs. They can let you know whether the beginning grabs them or leaves them cold. They can provide ideas for sharpening the beginning or making it a real grabber.
Because these are people who often read your work they can also tell you whether or not you’re staying true to your voice, or they can give you an idea for a better beginning that stays true to your voice.
In this critique piece we will concentrate on eliminating or changing some of the more “ordinary” words while making the action move faster.
ORIGINAL (word count 229)
The soup hung in the air, suspended, before finally falling in to the man’s lap. There was a long moment of silence, and then, with a gasp, Mr. Quintana jumped to his feet.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Quintana.” Beth couldn’t summon the strength to look up into his face. So, instead, she continued to look at the soup that was staining his classic Armani suit.
“Beth! Mr. Quintana!” Larry, the manager of the restaurant, rushed up to the table. “What’s happened here?” His eyes dropped to the growing stain on Mr. Quintana’s suit and then immediately went to the empty bowl that Beth still held in her hand. He glanced up to her red face and his eyes grew hard with accusation. “Beth, how many times...”
I will have to change my clothes. Please seat Mr. Carkner when he arrives and tell him I was called away. I will be back in a few minutes.” the owner’s voice was now more contained and precise. Its usual tone gave Beth the shivers.
“Yes, of course, sir.” Larry had on his usual obsequious look that also gave Beth the shivers.
The owner of the five-star-hotel and the restaurant that Beth worked at, turned and started to walk away. Suddenly, he stopped and turned back to the two people standing by the white-clothed table.
“Oh, and, Larry...fire her.”
CRITIQUE (Sue’s thoughts are in RED and Becky’s are in BLUE)
The soup hung in the air, so at first we thought this might be a sci-fi story, suspended (I like the idea of the soup seeming to hang or be suspended since they convey that split instant when time seems to stand still, but both mean the same thing, so I’d suggest using one or the other), before finally don’t need this word, as it slows the action falling need a better word...something with more action involved...maybe tumbled, plunged, dove, etc in -should be on) to the man’s lap.
Start a new paragraph.
There was a long moment of silence, and then, with a gasp, Mr.Why not use his first name here? Quintana jumped to his feet. Gasp is a minor word ...I would think, if he is to be the hero in this story, he would use a more forceful expression
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Quintana.” Beth couldn’t summon the strength-word choice, it’s not her strength that has her looking away but rather her embarrassment, maybe say nerve- to look up into his-delete and add the restaurant owner’s face.why? was she embarrassed, ashamed..how did she feel, what is on her face. her motions, did she jump back? need some physical action.. (had she ever done this before? Is she afraid she’s going to lose her job?).So, instead, she continued to look stare at the (color?)soup that was stained his classic-word choice I’d give this another color since when you think of Armani you think classic but think of cream of mushroom soup on a black suit or tomato soup on a gray suit) Armani suit. nice...we now know he wears expensive clothes so he is probably rich. It’s always important to say “good” things in a critique along with the suggestions
“Beth! Mr. Quintana!” Larry, the manager of the restaurant, rushed up-delete, not necessary to the table. Since he has a name we might want to know just a bit about how he looks...fat, short, etc.“What’s happened here?” His eyes dropped to the growing stain on Mr. Quintana’s suit and then immediately went to the empty bowl that (take out the “that”...it’s not needed)Beth still held in her hand. maybe a word or two about her..is her hand shaking? He glanced up to her red face and his eyes grew hard with accusation. “Beth, how many times...” how does his voice sound?
(is this the only reaction the owner of the restaurant will have to having one of his waitresses dump soup on him? And if he is the owner, wouldn’t that make it all the worse for Beth? We need to establish who Mr. Quintana is earlier and then I’d like to know the look on his face here, disgust? Does he entirely ignore her and turn to Larry?)
“I will most men will use a contraction here...I’ll have to change my clothes. Please I would take out the please...make him with more authority seat Mr. Carkner when he arrives. and get rid of the and...make his sentences shorter tell him I was called away. I will (I’ll) be back in a few minutes.” The owner’s okay...big jump here.. how do we know he is the owner...Larry, up above should have said something. voice (was now more contained and...this is not needed) precise.
Its usual tone gave Beth the shivers. how about... Beth shivered. (is he using his usual tone? Or is he angry and it frightens her even more?)
“Yes, of course, sir.” Larry had on his usual obsequious (big word...will everyone know what this means?) look that also gave Beth the shivers. (well we already know she has the shivers.. so either the shivers got much, much worse or another emotion came into play)
The owner (I think using his name here is better) of the five-star-hotel and the restaurant that Beth worked at, (turned and started to walk away. let’s make it simple...and simply use “stood” as this way you don’t have to use “turned” twice.) Suddenly, he stopped and turned-I’d use a stronger verb here, maybe whirled back to the two people standing by the white-clothed table.
“Oh, and, Larry...fire her.” Nice...
Very nice hook to end the scene
REVISED (word count 193) See if you think it moves along better...
The soup hung in the air before landing on the man’s lap.
There was a long moment of silence, and then, with a gruff curse, Juan Quintana, the owner of the five-star hotel, leaped to his feet.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Quintana.” Beth, who had just attempted to serve the soup, cringed as the cream of mushroom soup stain spread across his dark gray Armani suit. How could she be so clumsy? Was this going to cost her this waitress job?
“Beth! Mr. Quintana!” Larry, the manager of the restaurant, rushed to the table, his thin face a mask of worry. “What’s happened here?” He took in the growing stain on Mr. Quintana’s pants and the empty bowl Beth still held in her shaking hand.
“Beth, how many times...”
She fumbled with the soup bowl and began cleaning the table.
“I’ll have to change my clothes. Seat my guest when he arrives. Tell him I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Yes, of course, sir.”
The owner’s authoritarian tone gave Beth the shivers, but Larry's barely disguised anger sent waves of fear rushing through her.
Juan started for the door. Suddenly, he stopped and whirled back to the two people standing by the white-clothed table.
“Oh, and, Larry...fire her.”
See the difference? The new version is tighter and moves more quickly. A good critique should help you change your story for the better. Even if all it does is give you more to think about, it can help you to eliminate extra words or to perhaps search for better and a more meaningful way of saying something.
We hope this month's exercise in critiquing has been helpful. We'll continue to look at the critique process and we'll be critiquing a new piece next month. If you have a few paragraphs you'd like to have us critique or if you have questions about critiques or critique partners, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And as always, we welcome any sort of comments on our blog.
Sue and Becky