Beginning Workshop #1

The first beginning workshop comes from O’Dell Hutchinson for a WIP called “The Weeping.” Without further ado, here is my feedback on O’Dell’s beginning!

It was hot. The acrid smell of smoke filled her lungs, singeing them with every breath. Her head was spinning. She could hear people screaming. A man with a deep, booming, voice was yelling, telling everyone to stay calm and move toward the exit.

“It was hot” could be a first line to anything. A breezy summer beach read. A Southern gothic. It’s a fire, of course it’s hot. I’m looking for a first line with a little more bang here. There’s also a passive voice issue.

“Phillip?” she choked out.

“Phillip!” she screamed again.

The dialogue tags are overwritten here. We don’t know who Phillip is, also. Maybe some context.

Had he managed to get out? Was he searching for her? When the smoke started billowing on to the stage, everyone scattered, knocking her to the ground. It barely took any time at all for the smoke to take over, and the screaming to start. She pulled herself up and walked to what she thought was stage left. There was an exit backstage. If she could just get to the exit.

The writer does a great job of starting in action. We also get some interiority about Phillip here, which is good. But I’m missing a lot of context, ie: who is Phillip, how did the fire start, etc.

She pulled the skirt of her costume over her nose to help block the smoke, but it wasn’t working. The air around her swirled in misty curtains of black and grey. She couldn’t see where she was going. Her eyes stung and it took everything she had to keep them open. She tripped over something. Was it a set piece? A body? She couldn’t tell; the smoke was too thick.

Now we lose the interiority. What if it was a body? What thoughts would cross her mind? Does she think about dying? What does it feel like to not be able to breathe? There’s action and a very visceral setting but I’m not quite feeling what I would imagine it feels like to be in a hot, hot fire yet.

She inched her way toward what she thought would be the exit. She closed her eyes and followed the screams of the terrified people scrambling to get out of the theatre. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.

Multiple mentions of screaming already, getting redundant. Also, screaming people are usually terrified, so there some overstating of the obvious.

There was a sudden burst of heat in front of her. Unbearable heat. She took a step back, away from the flames that were closing in on her. She was afraid of falling off the stage and into the orchestra pit, so she got down on her hands and knees and crawled. She pulled herself forward with one hand, the other clutching her dress to her nose.

Not getting a true burst. The narrative voice is even-handed and calm and the sentences are long…not exactly what you’d expect during a scene that describes someone fleeing for their life. Check out the post on mimetic writing

The screams had faded and now seemed to be coming from outside. They were mixed with the sound of sirens. She felt a touch of relief. The firemen were here. They would put out the fire. They would save her.

Again, the interiority and almost nonchalance of the narrative voice don’t add up to a lot of tension for me. If I was about to be rescued from an inferno, I wouldn’t exactly feel just “a touch of relief.” By now, also, I invite you to note that we haven’t learned a single thing about this character other than she does theatre and she’s currently in a fire. There have been no characterizing details that reveal her to us as a person.

Something cracked and was followed by a loud crashing sound. The stage shook beneath her as whatever it was hit the floor. She started to panic again. The building was coming down. She quickly crawled forward, feeling her way around the stage, doing her best to maneuver around set pieces and fallen props.

Throughout the piece, we also have some play-by-play narration that is contributing to the passive voice. We don’t need every single movement described here.

The stage lights above her started to pop, sparkling through the smoke as they briefly lit up before shattering. It was as if she were being photographed by a swarm of photographers. Paparrazi documenting the every move of an eighteen-year-old girl as she fought for her life. She felt a sharp pain shoot up through her hand as she crawled over shards of glass from the broken bulbs.

An interesting image that fits in well with the performer part of the story so far.

There was another crack, this time directly above her. She looked up in time to see a beam, lit with flames, falling toward her. She tried to roll out of the way, but it caught her ankle, trapping her as it ignited her petticoat. She let out one more cry for help as the flames danced up her legs. She tried to move, but the beam held fast. She was going to die. The heat enveloped her and she did the only thing she could do. She wept.

The thoughts, memories, and prayers going through her head at this point would be extremely telling in terms of character. Not giving us interiority here is a huge missed opportunity.

Overall, there are some definite strengths: starts with action, a visceral scene with lots of tension. But there is also room for growth: we need a lot more about the character, we need interiority, we need some more action in the writing voice itself, and less static description. It’s not that the writer isn’t describing action–there’s a lot of stuff going on–but it’s the style of the description that’s passive and a bit flat.

I hope that seeing how I think about this beginning as I read it will help you look at your own beginnings and your own writing craft. I look forward to posting more beginnings this week and next!

20 Replies to “Beginning Workshop #1”

  1. Adele Richards says:

    You’re on fire, Mary!

    (whereas I appear to be knee-deep in cheese)


  2. Adele Richards says:

    Hello, I’m back – Mrs Emmental at your service.

    Mary, I’ve just read the blurb on the passive voice (thank you).

    I have a natural tendency to write in the passive voice which I then have to go back and change in editing. But WHY O WHY do I default to passive?

    Is this some deep personal issue which speaks to my lack of confidence….?

    Please speak now and assign me a personal counsellor 😉

    Is there a brilliant way to re-wire my brain so I automatically write in an active voice…or just practise, practise, practise?

    Any tips or insights much appreciated.

  3. Just wanted to say that I really liked the paparazzi line!

  4. First lines are better when they’re off-kilter and unexpected but also tight and mysterious…a small taste but a generous glimpse. I love making first lines.

  5. I want to thank this person for having the courage to send in their first page. A lot of people can learn from Mary’s advice, because what she’s giving advice on are really pervasive problems a lot of writers have. This is a wonderful critique. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I second Elizabeth May’s comment about the courage of the writer.

    Totally unrelated to the issues of writing, but rather, the issue of fires – those glass lights would break a lot earlier than what you have here. Last August I was out doing yard work, and my next door neighbor’s house caught on fire. Before I ever saw flames I heard the sound of her 100 year old, extremely thick windows blowing out. She is disabled, lives alone, and both her cars were there, but I could not get inside the house. I could not hear anything but the roar of the fire and glass breaking. (Granted, I was outside the building.)

    I would echo Mary’s comments that this first page isn’t quite there yet, in terms of capturing the horror/fear/anguish that your protag would be experiencing, but I think it’s a fascinating place for your story to start.

    (As it turned out, my neighbor’s brother had taken her to the hospital the day before, so she was not home. Thankfully, her cat – who is her whole world – escaped out the kitty door.)

  7. Thank you. Mary, for the critique. Thank you, O’dell, for putting your work out there! This helps everyone improve their craft.

    Getting inside characters and using active voice are things I’m just coming to understand. Keeping a list of verbs has transformed my writing and taught me countless ways to rephrase sentences into action.

  8. This was great advice on action and exposition. Look forward to applying it to my own writing. I generally hate writing beginnings, but this gives me hope that I’ll be able to identify why I struggle with them and do something to fix the problem.

  9. Thank you for sharing your work O’dell! *Loved* the paragraph about the stage lights popping and the reference of the paparazzi. Nice! Also I liked the visual of her weeping in the end. Keep going O’dell, it really is all about practice, practice, practice!! Well, for me anyway.

  10. This was a great critique Mary. I love these workshops.

  11. I’m still getting a grasp on “interiority”and how I can incorporate it more into my writing. This sample and critique is very helpful. Thanks for putting yourself and your writing out there O’Dell, and thanks for sharing your thoughts Mary.

  12. Thanks O’dell. You are very courageous! And that’s what it takes to eventually get published. Great crit Mary. Plenty of stuff for all writers to remember.

    I did want to make one general comment about interiority. It can be overused and sometimes really defuse the tension in an action scene. If it starts to feel like back story or a tangent be careful. That’s when you know you’ve gone too far.

    Also, books for girls often focus more on the characters’ interiors than books that are aimed at boys. Yes, interior is important to boys, but the balance is tipped more toward the action. So, when thinking about how to use interiority, the first step is understanding who your audience is and what kind of book you are trying to write–and sell!

  13. But…but…but…there’s no passive voice in the first section. “Was spinning” and “was yelling” are past progressive tense, not passive voice. Still wordy, of course, but not passive voice. The “was” isn’t the key to passive voice…the key is that the subject of the sentence/phrase isn’t doing anything, it’s being done to.

  14. Thanks Mary. I tried to “edit” the segments and then see if my thoughts matched yours. A good self-editing exercise.

  15. Jan above is right. There’s no passive voice whatsoever in the first paragraph. The idea that writing groups commonly spread, that any use of ‘to be’ is passive, is simply wrong. I agree that the paragraph needs rewriting, but I hate to see the confusion of passive voice and past progressive tense perpetuated.

  16. Handy post. Thanks, both to you and the generous/brave writer who leaped into the fray. 🙂

  17. Good post. BTW, I hope you enjoy Utah.

  18. Great information. This is sure to help all us writers with our stories. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. Thanks to O’Dell also for allowing her work to be used.

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