Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2

* SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Sure Thing *

Ah, a little inspiration in one’s life can go a long way in one’s writing…love, love, love that movie.

But to pick up where I left off Monday, here are the last two items covered during my one-on-one sessions at the Festival of Writing with agent Juliet Pickering and author Emma Darwin—

Opening Chapter:  Does your opening chapter compel further reading?

JP – “I don’t have a strong sense of [main character’s] age or experience. She seems fairly calm in this alien place – has she travelled a lot before? Surprised that no wariness when accepting drinks etc.”

ED – “Yes, to some extent. Want to know about the mysteries in the past, and how the prologue fits. Can’t say I care much yet, about [main character] because we haven’t had much insight into what makes her tick, what drives her, why she’s come to [this setting], etc.”

Me: Let me just preface with some context –  as you can probably tell, my first chapter starts out with my protagonist traveling in a foreign country. During our session, Juliet had seemed mildly interested in the chapter, but her lack of feel for the character prevented her wanting to read more. Emma, however, told me she definitely did want to read more, if for any reason because she was intrigued by my prologue in the voice of the historical thread’s main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting for the bulk of the story, but the historical one pops up now and then to gradually reveal its influence on the former. Emma was engaged by the historical voice and the mystery of its cryptic words, but it was unfortunately my modern protagonist that fell flat for her as with Juliet.

I place a lot of the blame on the fact that this first chapter used to be my third one. I’d hacked out a duller, wordier opening and likely didn’t thoroughly think through what necessary elements of character were thrown right out with it. I’ve therefore been working to reincorporate that into the opening chapter; it isn’t all as simple as adding an age reference in there, but showing more characterization (and consistency in that characterization) through thoughts, dialogue, and actions. Bearing in mind the critique of my writing style from last time, I’ve also worked to simplify sentences and present it in a *hopefully* snappier, more engaging way that will make the reader more interested in my gal by virtue of better understanding her personality, background, and motivations.

Next Steps:  Recommendations for the way forward.

JP – “Perhaps add a little more emotion into [main character’s] thoughts/feelings?”

Me: Juliet’s primary recommendation related to the issue above – characterization needs to be strengthened from the get-go. Emma hadn’t written anything down for this, but, in person, she reemphasized to me the importance of my two narrative threads having an impact on each other. She liked my writing (was hooked by the first sentence of Chapter 1—score!)—and just warned against the over-writing that confuses what I’m trying to say.

One sigh of relief was Emma’s validation with the way I shift POV between the two threads – the indie publisher I referenced Monday had an issue with that, but Emma said it was perfectly fine. There is an abundance of stigmas against first-time writers and what we are and are not able to do expertly enough; not that I’m saying I’m handling this case in point “expertly,” but I have a list of reasons why I’m doing it the way that I am that I’m choosing to stand by, no matter what. I can see it making a difference if a newbie tries something just for the sake of doing it, to be stylistic and experimental, but when there’s actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll see.

So once again, I ask you, readers, what feedback have you received on your manuscript’s opening that you’ve found helpful? How did you address it? 

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

7 responses to “Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2

  • In all the write places

    Aaah, I think it is great to receive such professional feedback. Very lucky you! And lucky readers to benefit from it. Gotta say, your story sounds very intriguing, can’t wait to finally read. 🙂
    On my own stuff: Well … you know parts of my first chapter of the first ms, and again with the second ms I start very much in medias res. It is quite a gruesome murder in the first ms, and the letter from a mother to her deceised husbhand about how on that very day she found her long lost adopted child. Most readers seem to like that kind of approach, although I got the feedback on the first ms that people got used to the character featured in it and were disappointed he got killed off at the end… so maybe calling it a prologue might have made that clearer to them….

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ah…I can see that point about getting attached to a character only for them to bite the dust right away. That would serve well as a prologue from that standpoint.

      And I think you’re smart to start in media res. It gives readers something interesting to bite into right away, and getting them to commit to the story like that early on will encourage them to nurture the backstory later on. I’m still not sure if I’m starting my ms at the right point yet…the prologue is very brief with a historical voice mourning the death of a loved one to cue that there are somewhat dark/strange things to come, but the first chapter with my modern protagonist might be reading too much like chick lit, still set-up for what the story’s really about though not diving straight into it yet. It’s a tough call because I feel like the necessary backstory there would be really awkward and day-late-dollar-short if crammed in somewhere later…but there I go rambling again. Luckily, I’m getting my next editing assignment next week to take my mind off it all again 🙂

  • Glen

    A thorough lesson (I think one of your own from the past actually?) about not throwing babies out with bath water?

    This session you had sounds absolutely brilliant – if you are big enough to listen to the critique with an open mind – which you clearly are! You don’t have to agree with everything they say, especially when you able to justify your opinion properly (as with your POV work) but you’d be insane not to consider their thoughts.

    Take it all in – make the changes you need to and it sounds more and more like you are going to make this work out very well. Nice!

    I can’t answer your question as I am not even remotely close to having a manuscript!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Aw Glen, you’re so nice to me. Thank you for always being such a positive and enthusiastic spirit on my side. 🙂

      With the babies in the bath water, isn’t it something how we can know what to and what not to do and yet still do it??? I catch this stuff so easily when I edit other people’s manuscripts, yet it creeps into my writing all the same. Gah! But as you said, the session was brilliant – that sort of critique is invaluable, and I’ll be thirsty for more before long when I complete this most recent revision. Good stuff for you to keep in mind as you write your manuscript – write it the way you want to so you can tell your story, just knowing that it will take waves of revision to polish it into something others can digest, too.

  • mjf76

    Let’s hear it for POV shifts! It’s got to be great to receive that kind of validation. As far as first chapters go, I was told by an author at the last conference I attended that my second chapter should be my first and that my opening chapter moved too slowly. I guess I need to give up setting the scene and the atmosphere and just jump right into the action like I do with my shorter work. Who knew?

    • thefallenmonkey

      Yes, cutting to the chase is apparently all the rage these days :). At one of my workshops they’d said that a lot of what we first write in our opening chapters is simply us trying to find our own way into our story…so I guess that means even if those chapters get cut, what they say won’t be snipped out entirely – if not simply pasted in a later chapter as backstory, characterization and such will ultimately show through. Sounds like your experience with short fiction will be invaluable to your long pieces from many angles!

  • Is the Baby Still in the Bathtub? « The Fallen Monkey

    […] couple chapters to start at even later one. If I do this, I must be mindful of what had happened last time and ensure the babies of characterization and exposition don’t get thrown out with the bath […]

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