First-Page Critique: Victor Fletcher’s Foster Children

Today I’m posting Entry #1 in this blog’s first-page critiques.

The anonymous author’s first page is below. My comments, and those of editor Ann Aubrey Hanson, follow.
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VICTOR FLETCHER’S FOSTER CHILDREN

If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

“And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to bring the heart to the hospital.

“We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

He ran.

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My comments:

This submission does exactly what I tell my writing students to do: Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it. Start in the middle of the action. Put your characters in a scene, with others, in conflict, doing something. And boy, are Brendan and Ronnie doing something important — under pressure, with time running out. This is a terrific way to open a suspense novel.

Over all, this is a strong page. It doesn’t slow down the scene with backstory. It lets the mystery build and pulls readers in through the actions of the characters. My suggestions relate to clarifying and tightening the text.

First paragraph:

  • Brendan is the Point of View character in this scene, but he isn’t identified until halfway through the page, when Ronnie mentions his name. Though it’s slightly artificial to state his name when the story’s in his POV, it’s also standard at the beginning of a novel. If you can name Brendan in the first paragraph, before mentioning Ronnie, that will clarify the scene and help readers. Perhaps, “But it looked impossible to Brendan.”
  • “It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor.” You don’t need both sentences — they imply the same thing. The first is the stronger.
  • “They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.” You can tighten the sentence to “every second they remained on that path.” And I’d change “that girl” to “the girl” — because this is the first time she has been mentioned.

Second paragraph:

  • I’m intrigued that Brendan thinks he can’t say anything, because Ronnie is doing plenty of yelling.
  • Is Brendan running? “So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth” implies that he is, but “as he edged through the crowd” suggests that he’s walking cautiously.

Later paragraphs: Watch tenses and some awkward sentence constructions.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

–> Suggest tightening to, “Excuse us,” Ronnie said desperately, etc.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> The middle aged man’s two lines of dialogue are near duplicates. Simplify: A middle aged man looked at them with contempt. “We’re all in as much a hurry as  you. We’d appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> Following paragraphs — suggest changing to:

“And we’d appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said. His Irish drawl grew thicker as he grew angrier. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It wouldn’t be long. “Time?” Brendan managed to ask.

Later:

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

–> To clarify the blocking in the scene — its layout and choreography — it’s often best to indicate the physical geography at the start of a sentence instead of the end: From a hundred yards out, he saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda.

–> And the tense: It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it an hour and a half earlier.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

–> Change to: They weren’t gonna make it.

He ran.

That is a great way to end the page — the odds are impossible, but Brendan’s going to try to beat them.

This scene does the most important thing an opening page can do: It makes me want to read on. I would turn the page in a heartbeat (no pun intended) to find out what happens next.

Well done. Thanks to this brave author for sending in the page for critique!

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 Ann’s comments:

This is indeed thrilling writing, and easily engages the reader. The reader is instantly pulled into the story, certain of a deadline and brutal consequences if the deadline isn’t met. But the writing can be edited for greater clarity and impact. Here are an editor’s remarks. All edits are suggestions:

Para 1: If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

  • If they didn’t make it in time… (there are two of them racing the clock)
  • Identify Brendan by name early.
  • Don’t need the “too.”
  • “Everything seemed to be against their favor.” (Wordy and vague. What else has been against them? Time? Crowds? Traffic? Quick specifics would help.)
  • Was Ronnie running in front of Brendan, or behind?
  • What path were they running on? A running path? A path at an amusement park? The reader has no idea, and therefore, is lost.
  • … the chances of the girl surviving

Para 2: He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

  • Would he really have wanted to say that, or would he have wanted to say, “Get out of the way. Move it!” (Something to convey his panic.)
  • “…he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.” (Why not? Out of breath? Told not to say a word?)
  • He kept pumping his legs, breathing hard through his mouth, edging through the crowd, cooler hugged to his chest, trying to bump anyone. (Reads faster, tighter)

Para 3: “Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

  • With a life at stake, would he really be saying, “Excuse us”? I suspect it would be more forceful. What does he care about their feelings? Somebody’s gonna die!

Para 4: “Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle-aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

  • “Screw you,” huffed a middle-aged man. “Wait your turn.”
  • What path are they on that there were so many people in a hurry?

Para 5: “And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

  • Again, not polite full sentences: PUNCH the line! Show his rage and his need for speed.

Para 6: Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to get the heart to the hospital. (Good. Tight. Concise.)

  • “Time?” he panted.

Para 7: “We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

  • …, wheezed Ronnie.

Para 8: Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

  • Delete “Brenden didn’t even blink.” Simply, “We will.”

Para 9: He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

  • Where is the car parked? Had they left it and run back to it? Confusing for the reader.
  • It hadn’t moved because of traffic? Is there someone else in the car, waiting for them?
  • Again, a sense of place is vital here.

Para 10: Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. We’re not gonna make it.

  • Rather than, “We’re not gonna make it,” something like: “Shit. We’re out of time.”

Para 11: He ran.

  • Where is he running? Is he on the path, where he couldn’t run before?
  • Why is he running? Deciding running is faster than the car?

Ann notes: This is a line-by-line critique, which I would do for the first few pages of a client’s manuscript, and then highlight similar areas thereafter. Generally I wouldn’t critique every page so in-depth, unless it is a line-by-line edit.

I note: Ann’s and my critiques differ slightly — that’s the nature of editorial review. The author can take all our suggestions under advisement, and decide which, if any, to implement. Good luck!

Cross-posted at Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch.

Here’s your chance to get the first page of your manuscript critiqued

I’ve often talked here about writing: story structure, character development, conflict, action, dialogue, revision, editing — the elements of craft and style. Now I’m going give you a taste of how editorial review works. By giving you the chance to submit the first page of your manuscript for critique here on the blog.

Here’s the deal:

I’m teaming up with my friend Ann Aubrey Hanson (AKA Snart) to offer up to five people a first-page critique. I’m an author and have taught writing courses at the University of California and workshops in the US, England, and Europe. Ann is a writer and editor who has also taught fiction writing at the UCSD Extension program as well as in writing workshops in the US. She’s a veteran journalist, newspaper editor, experienced freelance editor, and writing coach.

Here’s how it works:

Submit the first page of your manuscript — 400 words maximum. We post the selected entries along with our critiques both here and on Ann’s blog, The Writing Itch.

If you want to participate, email me the first page of your manuscript. Ann and I will choose 1-5 submissions from the first 20 entries.

Email your first page in the body of the email. That means: don’t send it as an attachment. Put the text in the email.

Send it to: meg@meggardiner.com.
Subject line: CRITIQUE [Title]

We’ll post critiques of the chosen pages anonymously. The writers’ names will not be posted. However, readers will be able to comment on each post, and if the author wants to jump in and identify him or herself, that will be fine.

Who’s in?

UPDATE: We have a full complement of entries, so the submission period is closed. Thanks to everybody who sent a first page — we’ll let you know when critiques are posted.

Happy Holidays

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To all who are celebrating: Happy Passover! Or Happy Easter!

Have a beautiful weekend.

Why I Love Writing Mystery Fiction, Part Infinity + 1

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Why are fellow Austin writer Jeff Abbott and I smiling in the photo above? The clue is in the books we’re holding. We’d just enjoyed a highly entertaining talk at Book People, and were waiting to get our copies signed by the author.

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Look, it’s Harlan Coben! Who, aside from being a fantastic author, is warm and generous and an all around nice guy. Many thanks to Scott Montgomery (on the right, wearing the “Random Cowboy” tie) and everybody at Book People for bringing Harlan to Central Texas.

On my shelf: books on writing

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Today I cleaned my office. Don’t be shocked — I know I’ve warned everybody that housework is dangerous and should be avoided whenever possible. But eventually you have to put yourself on the line, screw up your courage, and throw yourself into battle, screaming like a Celt wearing blue face paint and swinging a broadsword. Or maybe you clean with a dust rag and vacuum cleaner, or a weedwacker. Whatever. They’re all valid methods. My point is: while straightening my bookshelf, I took stock of the books on writing I’ve collected over the last twenty years.

There’s a wide range here — from the lighthearted to the scholarly. Some focus on commercial fiction, others on grammar. Others, like Stephen King’s On Writing, are as much memoir as instructional book. I’ve hung onto all of these because first, I love writing and love learning as much as possible about the way storytelling functions, and second, because each of these books taught me something worthwhile about my craft.

In alphabetical order:

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block
The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker
Bestseller, Celia Brayfield
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction, Barnaby Conrad and the staff of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference
The Elements of Legal Style, Bryan Garner
Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, Edited by Sue Grafton
On Writing, Stephen King
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Story, Robert McKee
How Not to Write a Novel, Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark
Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Wallace Stegner
Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss
Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman

I value all these books on their own. But their real worth can never be realized until you read fiction and study how their lessons play out on the page.

And no — when I picked up On Writing, I never imagined that one day Stephen King would update it with a list of recommended books that includes two of my novels. That’s beyond anything I could have dreamed up.

Today: Dripping Springs Community Library

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This afternoon I’ll be at the Dripping Springs Community Library, talking about writing and my novel Phantom Instinct. The event is free and everybody is welcome, so come on down.

Copies of my books will be available for sale, and all proceeds go to benefit the library.

Author Visit: Meg Gardiner 
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
4:30 PM – 5:30 PM
Dripping Springs Community Library
501 Sportsplex Dr.
Dripping Springs, TX 78620
(512) 858-7825

MWA Cookbook giveaway on Goodreads

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Lookie here: It’s the Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. In which I have a recipe. So I am now an OFFICIALLY PUBLISHED COOK.

When I pointed this out to the Husband, he said, “Miracles do happen.”

Yeah, he’s not getting any of the biscuits in my recipe.

But you can. And to celebrate the book’s March 24 launch, its publisher, Quirk Books, is holding a giveaway on Goodreads. Enter by April 3 at this link.