Workshop Submission #1

Before I post this first workshop submission, I want to say something about respect and trust. My blog readers are some of the smartest, handsomest, most awesome people on the Internet, obviously. I don’t want to offend their intelligence by stating the obvious, but I will:

Writing is an intensely personal thing that people do. Getting up the courage to send in your work and your writing is a huge struggle for most people. Reading the work of others involves a lot of trust and I take a writer’s willingness to share their work with me very seriously. Sure, sometimes the slush is funny. Sure, sometimes writing needs work. But snark is the lowest common denominator and it helps nobody, so I never resort to it. Not on this blog. Not about a person’s writing skill. Not for me, thanks. Sometimes I’ll use humor or a joke to illustrate a point, but I am never poking fun at a writer or at the writing itself. That’s an important distinction to make.

For this exercise, I specifically asked for writing samples that need work, in the writer’s opinion. I asked for writers who didn’t mind receiving constructive criticism and feedback on the blog. These writers are coming here to get a little tough love and a little workshopping. They are putting themselves out there and saying, “Help, please.”

It is a brave thing to stand in front of people with your writing exposed.

As a result, I am going to be watching comments very carefully. Any needless snark, criticism, or flaming will be removed. There was some disagreement about one of my contest winners last week, and that’s fine. But if someone takes it upon themselves to snark or insult or judge or be oh-so-clever, I will have no qualms about shutting them down. Don’t make these writers regret reaching out to share their work.

Again, I am dead serious about this. I’d hate to police people like they’re preschoolers but the Internet is full of trolls and other unpleasant types. If it turns into a problem, I will turn off comments and participation will be ruined for everyone. We’re here to help each other. We’re all on a journey. Writing is a craft that develops with time. Be humble, generous, and kind with these entries.

And that’s the end of that unpleasant rant!

Here’s my first selection, from Shawna Weeks’ CHASING FOREVER. The writer says:

My main concern is: would you keep reading? I want to know if it is enough to make you turn the page and start the first chapter?

And now for the sample:

***

Preface

Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory or chapters before eventually circling back to the exciting part. It gets the action started right away and then… after a flashy opening… the tension drops to comatose levels in 99% of cases. Ask yourself: are you just using your premise as a trick? A teaser? Try to construct a real beginning without using this technique. Is that harder? Nobody said writing a novel was easy, mind you. But I don’t want to make this an entry about prologues, so I’ll move on.

Glimpses of my life flashed before me as I awaited death. I could hear the sounds of my brother, Matthew and I as we splashed at our favorite swimming hole just the day before the car accident as if it were happening now.

The “life flashing before my eyes” thing is a cliche. I see it a lot. And since we don’t know the character or her brother, the swimming hole memory seems pretty generic, too. Also, swimming holes evoke early childhood to me… not really a great first image for what I’m assuming is an older YA paranormal romance, but that might just be my own connotation or bias about swimmin’ holes.

I saw myself with tears on my cheeks, clinging to my mother’s hand the first day of grade school, begging her to take me back home. I felt that moment when I realized my love for Jaxen was bigger than anything I had ever felt. All of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence as I lay bleeding.

By giving us a lot of high emotions, the writer might hope that we, too, will emote and feel these things along with the character. Gripping the mother’s hand is the most specific image here, and wanting to go home is a powerful feeling, especially now. However, then we go back to vague again. We haven’t met Jaxen yet, so he’s meaningless to us. And “bigger than anything I had ever felt” is very vague. There’s a contradiction with “all of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence” that’s annoying, because for all the words spent on it, this really does negate itself and end up saying nothing. All of these words — “vital” and “bigger than anything” especially — are vague. What’s “bigger than anything” or “vital” to one person isn’t the same to another. I haven’t learned anything about the character yet, either. She… has a family… and she loves someone. The same could be said about almost anyone.

Sunlight filtered through the web of branches above me, blinding me momentarily. Wind rustled through the trees, blowing the odious scent of the creature across my face and I gagged.

Beginnings should ground the reader in the when and where. I had no idea they were in woods or in daylight, frankly. I want to know why she’s bleeding, but the “creature” mention totally seems to come out of left field. We’re talking about her family at one moment, then there’s a smelly creature. “Sunlight filtered” is also a tranquil image, while “web of branches” and “blinding me” aren’t. “Wind rustled” is tranquil again, but “I gagged” isn’t. That kind of vacillation in the imagery is jarring to read. Finally, “odious scent” seems like a very specific and elevated way of speaking…. not really what a teenager might be thinking or saying, unless they’re using it for comic effect. That strikes me as a bit off in terms of voice.

I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen, but I couldn’t let him go without me. This was definintely not how I would have planned my death, but does anyone really plan for that?

Good interiority on “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen,” now we finally know what she was doing. Then this slips into implied second person direct address (where you seem to be talking to the reader or “breaking the fourth wall” of the narrative without using the word “you”) and we seem to be pausing for a moment to contemplate the nature of death and dying. Why? Lots of characters do this and it never works. Don’t have your characters sit around musing… especially if they also happen to be bleeding! (Also, it’s “definitely.” Proofreading is very important and typos or spelling errors are almost impossible to catch. I copied and pasted this, so it’s not a typo on my end.)

I didn’t like that look in his black eyes when I found him that morning by the barn. I struggled not to run into his open arms, but the fear on his face held me back. “I love you, Sophie,” Jaxen said and I froze. “I have to go.” That was it. He was gone.

Notice how we haven’t really gotten a clear foothold in the present moment. We have trees, a swimming hole (I know the writer did this to try and give us some backstory and to make the character sympathetic), death, blood, a creature, wind, Jaxon… a lot going on. And before we’re fully grounded in what’s going on in the present moment of her lying there and smelling a creature, we’re swept away to that morning. There’s a barn now? And he’s afraid? This also makes it sound like some time has passed. If he left “this morning” and she followed him… when are we? How long has she been in the woods (if there even are woods?) since then? Etc.

Without a word I let him walk away. I watched until his tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon. My heart shattered with each step he took. I wanted to scream, beg him to come back to me…but I let him go.

Writing is such a specific art. If you look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, it’s “He was gone.” And now, we jump the chronology yet again, to the moment of him walking away… even though the writer already said he was gone (which has a feeling of finality to it). So we’re in the present moment (bleeding), then we go back to that morning (saying goodbye), then we go to him already having disappeared (“He was gone”), to the moment of him leaving (“I let him walk away. I watched his tall form…”). But we do get our most specific image yet: “His tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon.” I like that. But I don’t feel her heartache yet because I don’t know these people, either of them.

That’s why prologues don’t work for me most of the time. I’m thrown into the MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT EVER, a MOMENT OF DRAMA AND HIGH EMOTION, between two people who I have no idea about. It really is like watching a foreign-language soap opera 99% of the time… I don’t get what’s going on, who the people are or why they’re all so upset.

***

Does this seem nitpicky? Yes. It is. Extremely nitpicky.

But there are a lot of elements in play here. I’d say my overall assessment is that there’s too much going on. Focus in on ONE moment and really work to connect us to the main character instead of scrambling us around. Once we know her, we can connect her to another person — Jaxon? Her family? — and then center ourselves in some action. I’d try some more linear storytelling, also, and try it without the quick cuts.

55 Replies to “Workshop Submission #1”

  1. I liked it. I thought if you had started with “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxon…”, and followed the story from there, I would have kept reading. I worship at the alter of your courage in submitting here, Shawna! I didn’t dare 🙂

  2. I really love reading a good critique. Thank you Mary and thank you author. And by the way, I love the name Jaxen. I have a lot of respect for writers who can come up with unusual names and unusual spellings that don’t make me stumble.

  3. wow. very helpful comments. I had some similar problems, and recieved revision notes from a agent stating smilar things. Focus on one moment.

    Thanks to both Shawna and Mary for sharing!

  4. Great post Mary.

    Lots of things to think about with regards to my own WIP. I think I may have introduced a second character too early?

    Shawna – Thanks for sharing your work.

  5. Interesting and informative, thanks to both Shawn and Mary. What first pulled me into the story was the title, which I liked. Mary, how important are titles to agents? I’ve always heard “not very as it may be changed,” is that still true?

    And I’ve noticed recently reading well-established and well known authors who are getting away from “prologues” by calling them the first chapter. This stops me as a reader. Is this because prologues are a no-no now?

  6. This is great, Mary, and thanks, Shawna, for submitting yourself to her scrutiny (never mind her bias against swimming holes).

  7. Oh Brave Shawna–thank you for volunteering your sample for our betterment. I’m loving the “heat wave” and “sun through web of branches” images. Nice work.

    I often wondered about prefaces. A (really famous) vampire series starts with a preface about death, and then the tension drops (ka-thunk) at chapter one, and the tension in this chapter is about something completely different. It’s helpful to get your perspective about it, Mary.

    I appreciate the concept about focusing on one event for the main character until the reader gets to know them. Actionable advice.

    My guess is this project has an amazing storyline, solid imagery, and main character with a fabulous voice. Good luck to you, Shawna, as you polish this one up.

  8. Shawna, thanks for being brave. Mary, thanks for the insight. I also like the idea of starting where Sophie is following Jaxen and regretting it and then letting the story unfold in chronological order.

  9. There are a lot of interesting hints here. Trouble is, I don’t do subtle well. And I don’t like non-linear chronology much either. Although I was talking this morning about the last book that drew me deep and it’s very non-linear. So even my dislikes are subjective.

    I’m not sure you’re buying anything with this preface. I ended it feeling like I didn’t know anything more than when I started and turning the page would mean trying over again to get a handle on what the book was about.

    When I pick up a book in a store, it has one or two paragraphs to draw me in before I decide to buy it. As it stands, I would not turn the page.

    I’d be interested to know if the first chapter really needs this preface. From the hints here, I think you might have an interesting story and I’d like to see it at its best.

  10. I agree about “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxon…”, would have been a better starting point (first commenter). That line is a nice line, creates a question and curiousity. I want to know why you shouldn’t have followed Jaxon.

  11. I like that you said all of that at the beginning, Mary. It’s why I shy away from public type forums most of the time.

    I was wondering what the first pages of Shawna’s work sounded like, because I was actually thinking the line “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen”, would make a good opening line. But after saying that, maybe she begins somewhere different in the story given the prologue.

    Very insightful critique.

  12. Gosh Mary, after that rant I nearly soiled myself.

    However, I do want to point something out. Whenever you say positive or negative things about someone’s material, the floodgates are opened. Once people see it’s okay to criticize someone’s writing, they will do so.

    With your contest winners, in 4 of the cases you never said anything negative, so those who commented followed your lead. However, all the entries had areas where they could be improved. Some of the transitions from paragraph to paragraph and scene to scene were weak. Also, some of the samples had some word repetition issues and passive writing. You didn’t point this out (but may when you give your private reviews) and that made for a more respectful and positive atmosphere. But a less honest one.

    My point, and I do have one, is that comment sections should allow a free exchange of ideas and people shouldn’t be afraid to be honest.

  13. Bongo — Of course there should be a free exchange of ideas. However, people get out of hand mean sometimes and start to judge a) the writer, b) the writing, c) the writer’s merits as a writer, d) whether or not this will be published or is worth publishing, whatever.

    What works and doesn’t work about a piece of writing is very valuable. That kind of feedback is why we’re here.

    What works and doesn’t work about a person and their writing ambitions, however, is damaging. There’s a line here sometimes but it’s an important one to note.

    I want to make sure people are in the frame of mind to evaluate a piece of writing and its effectiveness as a novel beginning, rather than judge a person, their chances of getting published, the strength of their overall book idea, etc.

  14. You sound like a beautiful woman. Bongo has not known the charms of the female persuasion in nearly two years and is growing weary of the affections of camels.

    Although I do not have a job and still live with my parents, soon I will publish my own bestseller about a dashing Arab spy and the women who flock to him. Then I will woo you properly.

  15. Wow, Shawna thank you for being the brave one 🙂 I’m sure mine will be up soon. I agree that you should start your story with, “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxon…” its a great hook and your title is amazing. Keep going,

    My first manuscript had too many adjectives. I took a work shop with Ellen Hopkins/Susan Lindquist, it was great, they gave me new insight on how not to state the obvious with so many adjectives. The exercise went something like this;

    It was hot outside (Obvious)

    My pits wouldn’t stop sweating under the sun (Better)

    The Arizona heat wrapped me up in a black drench coat (Much Better)

    Well, it went something like this, hope it helps 🙂 It changed my view on writing. Best of luck and keep writing, your VERY creative!

  16. My Dearest — Your needling only makes my manhood blossom more!

    I hope I did not detect a prejudice against camels. They are noble, if flatulent, beasts.

  17. Wow, I thought I was quite a Mary stalker (hysterically screaming, “I LOVE YOU!” at the computer every now and again, like a Jonas Brothers fan), but Bongo, you’ve just taken that crown.

  18. To my new friend Franz — If you are yelling “I Love You” at the Jonas Brothers that would make you a 12-year-old girl or someone who works in the fashion industry. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Why then would you have affections for my Mary?

  19. Siski and Bongo — *taps on screen* Um, shouldn’t stalkers technically, and I might be totally wrong about this, NOT discuss their stalking in front of their stalkee?

  20. I enjoyed this post a lot, and found it helpful in different ways: thanks Shawna and Mary!

    Shawna, your question was ‘would you keep reading’ and if you’re looking for all our opinions, mine’s a “yes”. The elements that are leaving me curious are the creature (I’m wondering what it is), Jaxen’s leaving, and the narrator’s future if she’s starting off dead. I liked your writing style too and found it enjoyable, so yes I’d turn the page.

    I also liked the “nitpicky” comments Mary LOL because there’s real advice there for a rewrite and a lot of good points to work with. I left my last writer’s circle because too much feedback was “it’s nice” and “it’s fine”. Ugh. What can I do with *that*?

    There’s a lot of advice about prefaces and prologues, but mostly the advice is against using them — I’m left wondering when are they appropriate, or work particularly well?

  21. WOW! You do not know how excited I was to see my name in neon lights! Ok, so it wasn’t in lights but it very well could have been in my eyes!

    Thank you, Mary, so very much for taking the time to go over this! I have gone back and forth with the idea of the preface, but now I see that maybe I should just skip it and start at the first chapter. Seriously, what a great learning experience, I say this (or type) with shaky hands because I am just so darn excited you picked mine!

    Thank you also to all of your great commenters for their support and help! I have some serious work to do now!

    PS I loved that title too 😉

  22. Bongo has an opinion on prefaces. Because Bongo has an opinion on everything.

    Many thrillers and mysteries use a preface when a key initial event, separate from the main story or main character, takes place at an earlier time, venue or location. This is key because the main story usually happens later or elsewhere.

    That’s the only time a preface is worth using. When it comes to contemporary fantasy and light first-person works, prefaces are generally a mistake and can usually be made into chapter one with little work needed.

  23. Bongo, I think we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way. By that I don’t mean pistols at dawn, I mean writing, rewriting and then rewriting some more until maybe, just maybe, the best ‘man’ wins!
    Yours in all sincerity, Franz

    (Maybe ‘Franz’ is a solution to the Siski versus Franziska problem! I may as well change gender as well as my name, eh?!)

    PS Shawna, I also wanted to add that what you’ve done by letting us all view your work and see it critiqued is really brave and good of you. Seeing your comment above makes it even better because it’s clear you really value getting this opportunity. Thanks so much for sharing.

  24. Wow. How do you find time for such detailed critiques, Mary? This was fabulous… thanks to Shawna for submitting your work, and thanks to Mary for the terrific detail in your critique. It definitely makes me look at my first chapter with more critical eyes. (And the title IS wonderful!)

  25. Shawna – more congrats on your courage. You have a lot of potential in this section. I bet these pointers will help you polish it up!

    Mary – what an amazing critique – so thorough. You’ve pinpointed a lot of things I might never have noticed.

    It’s amazing how much we can learn from critiques. I liked your instructional piece at the beginning – hopefully everyone always remembers the difference between critique and criticize 🙂

    Thank you both 🙂

  26. Yes, thanks Shawna for submitting. I learned a lot reading Mary’s critique.

    I agree that you should focus on one thing, probably Jaxen, and I would start with “I shouldn’t have followed…”.

    If you’re going to do a prologue. I would almost leave it as just that one sentence, then go into your story. Just my thoughts.

    But I was curious to find out who Jaxen was.

  27. Shawna,

    Thank you very much for submitting your beginning. I’m glad Mary’s comments were helpful to you.

    Mary,

    Thanks for your detailed workshopping of this beginning. It was very enlightening.

    Best Wishes,
    Joseph

  28. It’s funny, but I wouldn’t think to comment on any of your contest winners, since they won, and there was no reader critique request.

    I follow and send pieces to “Miss Snark’s First Victim” and I follow “Query Shark”. At both blogs, I’ve only seen constructive criticism, although I’m sure Query Shark deletes ones that are unnecessarily harsh. Miss Snark’s First Victim readers’ comments made my writing stronger.

    Since most of the people following your blog are writers, it’s surprising that any of us would want to tear down other writers here. I’m going to follow this series, but I won’t comment on the writer’s beginnings because you’re doing a thorough job of it.

  29. Ah, Shawna, I am beginning to see why Mary was not interested in my book. I made several of the same mistakes. I’m glad to know I am in good company. Now, I suppose I should get rid of my prologue.

  30. This is extremely helpful. While I read and enjoyed each of the winning submissions from the contest, and your commentary on those was somewhat helpful, reading about what turns an agent off is perhaps more helpful to me. I read great, polished writing every day, because mostly I read published books. Hearing what not to do is immensely useful.
    Thank you for the advice, and thanks especially to the authors who are putting their work under your magnifying glass.

  31. The fine lines are everywhere. While Shawna’s example introduces what could be thought of as “too many” characters, I’m realizing I don’t even mention “the boy” until the end of the second chapter even though he becomes a main character. Hmmm, I’ll need to give this more thought!

  32. Shawna, when I critique a piece in my writers’ group, I’m always pickier with the stories I like. When I get a tough critique, I feel like my fellow writer thinks my story has merit, or why would he or she take such care in in correcting it. You were brave to put your work out for us to see. Mary gave you a wonderful gift of a great beginning for your novel.

  33. First of all, Shawna, you deserve a wheelbarrow full of chocolate for being so brave! (I just had my work critiqued in a workshop with 16 strangers so I know how it feels. Believe me, it is SO worth it although you may feel the urge to cry at first!!)

    As to your question of would I keep reading, I probably would because I’m a sticky-beak and I want to know all the answers to the questions your prologue posed. However, I may be reading in a detached, unemotional kind of way because I haven’t had a chance to really connect with the characters yet, like Mary pointed out.

    I find in my own writing it’s tricky to find the balance between planting clues to keep people reading but giving enough information for people to be grounded in the story and characters while looking for those clues.

    Good luck! You’ve obviously got a great attitude and are willing to put in the hard yards. I wish you wheelbarrows of chocolate AND success 🙂

  34. Shawna – I thought you were so brave!
    A couple of small things I wanted to add:
    I’ve just finished reading ‘If I Stay’ and your first few sentences all made me think ‘Hey, I’ve just read this book!’

    Now of course your work is clearly going to be way way different from that one, but I thought that giving away so much before we get to know Sophie, before we get to connect with her unique voice, and her unique story, might lead to those kind of unwanted comparisons…

    I also wondered if the preface seems more personal to you because you are so deeply connected with Sophie – you are feeling her story so powerfully as you write those lines, that it might be hard to step back and realise that the rest of us aren’t necessarily having that strong connection (I’m doing my own musing for myself here….)

    Wishing you great good luck with it.
    Clare

  35. Cor… you guys have all got amazing blogs! I’ve spent hours reading them. V impressed.

    A wheelbarrow of chocolate is a good idea. Thanks Mary and Shawna. That was really interesting, I learned loads, particularly the ‘time’ thing. It seems as we try and re-enforce something we jump back and forward in time to try and make it stronger – with more images – and weaken the piece as we do.

    One thought: Mary, on the next one, what about posting the whole submission at the head of the response, then do just what you did on this one? That would give us a chance to read and think about our own response first – then see how unutterably brilliant we were.

  36. Thank you Shawna for putting your work out there so that we all may learn, and Mary for helping us to become better writers. I hope you will do this again sometime. I’d be glad to share my work with the others, what a great learning experience it would be. Keep working on your story Shawna and it’ll be great! : )

  37. Thanks for sharing, Shawna! Mary, the critique really helped me because I had some jumping around issues, and not staying grounded enough. My critiquers informed me of this, but your words at the end of Shawna’s submission made it click even more. Thanks!

  38. I’ll take a turn screaming “I love you” at the computer screen. However, my first heartfelt yell goes to Shawna. I love you, Shawna! For your courage to put yourself out there. For your grace under fire and for your enthusiasm in accepting an honest critique. You rock my socks off.

    My second scream goes to Mary for taking the time to do this. Thanks much for proving us with real-time critiques. They are so valuable as a learning tool.

    That said, I would like to offer a bit of commentary on the critique and the process. I think Shawna fell into the trap many of us fall into as beginning writers. We are constantly told to start with the inciting incident. So we do. We jump right in with both feet, then have to back-pedal to get the necessary info in.

    When we do this, we often fail to give our readers the opportunity to connect with our characters. And if they don’t connect, they won’t care enough to turn the page.

    At least that’s what I learned at a recent writer’s conference and is now being demonstrated through Shawna’s manuscript and Mary’s critique.

    There is a fine line between jumping in ahead of ourselves and providing scads of boring details. Exercises like this are great educators.

    My favorite line: I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen, but I couldn’t let him go without me.

  39. I just wanted to say again how truly amazing this experience was! A little part of me felt like my masterpiece was being ripped to shreds, but honestly, I don’t even care! It was so incredibly helpful and such a great learning experience that it doesn’t even matter if it wasn’t the greatest thing ever written! I learned so much in this workshop! THANK YOU!!!

    What really hit home for me was Clare’s statement. I AM so involved with these characters that I didn’t see how the reader could not connect with them. I know what happens in the rest of this scene so to me it was perfect! But the reader does not until way down the road, but by then they may not care.

    And yes, Cat that is excatly what I was trying to do, I felt like it needed to be big and powerful and knock your socks off, which apparently it didn’t!

    Now I just have to decide, do I completely eliminate the preface or work it in chapter 1? Oh and Karen, would love that wheelbarrow of choclate, especially if you make it white chocolate!

    Thank you again Mary and thank you all of the commenters, I think I learned just as much from your comments as I did Mary’s.

  40. Is a prologue okay if it’s from the POV of someone other than a main character, showing an event that the MC is not present at, and takes place before chapter one?

    I dislike the flashforward technique of some prologues, as it really does feel like a gimmick, a “look at me! high stakes!” Thanks for doing these critiques, Mary, and thanks to Shawna for her bravery.

  41. Feywriter — I really dislike this technique. It starts the story one way, then totally goes in another direction and starts the real story. If the event is important, is there another way to reveal it? Giving the reader a piece of information that the MC doesn’t have is an effective gimmick, but I hope that’s not the only tension in the plot.

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