another look at analyzing critiques

In a fit of passion, I submitted the four opening lines of my novel to Edittorrent’s latest editing exercise. (Note: whenever a professional editor says drop me four lines and I’ll edit them for you, swallow your pride, cut and paste, then read and learn.)

I thought I would share my experience not so much to illustrate my own masochistic tendencies, but to demonstrate a topic I touched on in a previous post: analyzing someone else’s critique of my work. Some people believe that an edit, especially one by a professional, should be followed unquestioned. While all of Alicia’s suggestions were dead on, not all of Alicia’s suggestions fit my overall piece, which she didn’t see, or my character, which she couldn’t know from four sentences.

Here are the four lines that I sent:

Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. Nothing but silence penetrated his sister’s house. The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows. His twin was always cold.

ALICIA SAID:

I’m really dense today– I thought there were four people: Lucian, his sister, Catarina, and his twin. I mean it– my brain feels like oatmeal. If I were a bit sharper, I’d probably have understood. 🙂
However, twin and sister– don’t use both. One, we can assume equals Catarina. So how about simplifying: Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. Nothing but silence penetrated his twin sister’s house. The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows because she was always cold.

I said:  EEK! I’ve had eight or more people read that paragraph, and Alicia was the first one to think there were four people rather than two. I imagined an editor or agent, who had been reading numerous manuscripts prior to reaching mine, seeing the same thing. So I would have to simplify the references to Catarina even though I hate the phrase “twin sister.” “Twin sister” sounds juvenile to me, BUT I can’t have confusion in that opening paragraph.

ALICIA SAID:

This doesn’t seem unified. He wakes up because he heard a noise. Then he feels the heat and thinks about his sister. Finish up with the noise. I can’t say this enough: Be in him. Be him. He hears a noise. It wakes him up. What does he do? He sits up in bed? He cocks his head to where the noise came from? He listens hard? When he hears nothing, what does he do? Does he try to figure out what the sound was? (After all, not all sounds are recurring.) Does he swing his legs off the bed and lean forward or stand up? If you want to have that about the room being warm in this paragraph, how about showing it in action– he throws off the covers because he’s so hot?
Don’t summarize important action. Let the reader be in his body, let him act the way people act when this thing happens. Don’t take it too far, but what does a person do when he’s awakened by a noise? He probably does more than just lie there. (We react instinctively to a noise at night, like the smell of something burning, because these are signs of danger. They will wake us out of a dead sleep. But because they are signs of danger, we aren’t just going to lie there– we’ll do something if only to get more information. We won’t settle back into bed until we have convinced our jangling instincts that we are not in fact in danger. This is primal, and you probably really need to have him act a bit on it, figure out that the doors are locked still and that the noise was just a branch against the window, not Jason in his hockey mask. 🙂
(Understand that the TSTL heroine is based on me. — Too Stupid to Live.– If I heard a nighttime noise in the attic, there I’d be, climbing those attic stairs, because my fear of the unknown is greater than my fear of Jason and the hockey mask.)
Also, if the room is too hot, he’s going to do something, not just lie there and think about his sister. He’s going to throw off the covers, pull off his shirt. Decide he’ll risk Sis’s wrath and open a window.
Now you might say, geez, that’s a lot for one paragraph. Yep. That’s why you should put the noise, the awakening, the listening, the sitting up, all the noise stimulus and reaction in one paragraph, and have another about the heat, and his reaction to that. Get him moving. You don’t want him confronted with two physical stimuli and commit no action at all. His body does more than just perceive– it moves too.

I said: The second paragraph does have him sitting up, but after looking at Alicia’s critique, I realize the action is coming too late. I need to have Lucian moving sooner and position the reader in his head as quickly as possible.

In discussing the emotions a person goes through when they are awakened by a strange noise, Alicia is right on all counts. However, Lucian isn’t going to be afraid, because he’s learned from past experience that seeking the cause of the noise can have dangerous ramifications. This is where I have to step in with my knowledge of what I want out of this scene and how my character is going to act or react to his situation. In this opening paragraph, I wanted to convey the claustrophobia that Lucian feels, first from the fire, then from the Catarina’s control.

ALICIA SAID:
The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows. His twin was always cold.
The diction is a little formal here (which is fine), and longer sentences are common in formal narratives. But still trim out the words that aren’t needed. "forbade the opening of windows" is sort of clunky. And the connection between the two clauses isn’t all that clear. Apparently he WANTS to open the window, but remembers that his sister doesn’t allow that (and you’ve said it’s her house– so her rules). Do you see what I’m going to suggest? Show him thinking about getting up and closing the window. Then the thought about her forbidding opening the windows makes more sense. Like:
The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, so he got up and started for the window. But halfway across the stone floor, he stopped. Catarina wouldn’t stand for that. She forbade the opening of windows because she was always cold.
Catarina sounds like a really lousy hostess. She’s cold, so all her guests have to be miserable?
Actually, I have a relative just like that. She keeps her thermostat at 87. Really. I always make excuses to get out of there and spend the night elsewhere! 
[END OF ALICIA’S COMMENTS]

I said: “Forbade the opening of windows” is a clunky phrase, you can ask my OWW critique group, it’s one of my trademarks.  They pounce on every single one and I thank them for it repeatedly.

Now while I was sitting and mulling over Alicia’s edit I realized a major problem that had eluded me. Without all the commentary, the original paragraph was:

Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. Nothing but silence penetrated his sister’s house. The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows. His twin was always cold.

After Alicia talked about investigating the noise, I re-read the original paragraph and realized that I have a silent house and a blazing fire. Fires are not silent, even little tiny ones. Alicia had picked up on a defect in the paragraph which was unrelated to my silent fire, but somehow her comments directed my attention to the contradiction.

In a weak moment, I almost let it go thinking that no one would notice (bad, bad, LAZY writer that I can be!). However, I realized the people who read Edittorrent are intelligent, and if I had figured it out, someone else would. Believe me, I tried eighty-two variations to keep that “Nothing but silence . . .” line, but in the end, I realized it had to go.

At this point, the only workable sentence I have is the first one: Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him.

This is where I have to step in as the author and know what I want that sentence/paragraph/scene to communicate to my reader. In this particular paragraph, I want to convey the fire, the stifling heat, and Catarina’s control in that order, and I must introduce Catarina as Lucian’s twin sister.

Alicia also recommended putting action early in the paragraph. Since my original second paragraph had Lucian sitting up and feeling the heat, I incorporated the relevant sentences from my second paragraph into my first paragraph.

Now I have:

Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. He sat on the edge of his bed and pushed his hands through his heavy black hair. His palms were wet with sweat.

Alicia also recommended that I be my character, so if Lucian is listening for a sound that wakes him, then the first thing he will do is recognize and filter the familiar sounds.

The only sound was the crackling of the hearth fire.

Next line remains the same except I trim the clunkiness of the last phrase: The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade opening windows.

I want to establish the sibling relationship and the reason for the fire: His twin sister was always cold.

So my original opening paragraph metamorphosed from this:  Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. Nothing but silence penetrated his sister’s house. The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows. His twin was always cold.

To this:  Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. He sat on the edge of his bed and pushed his hands through his heavy black hair. His palms were wet with sweat. The only sound was the crackling of the hearth fire. The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade opening windows. His twin sister was always cold.

When I compare the two paragraphs now, the original looks like several disjointed sentences put together while the new version is a natural progression from one concept to another. For the record, I still hate twin sister, but I can live with it.  That’s called compromise.

Oh, and my dreams of no one noticing my silent fire? The following morning, I went to the comments section of the Edittorrent post and sure enough, Laura K. Curtis had noted quite nicely that a room with a fire is not silent. The next time I’m feeling lazy, I’m going to remember Laura!

Kelly Bryson recently posted on this topic on her blog with her article, Editing and Persistence. So if you want to see more writers in the throes of the revision process, visit her blog, Ink Well.

If you have time, go to Edittorrent and see all the edits.  There were some really great paragraphs and comments made on all the posts, and there is something to learn from them all.

Copyright 2009 Teresa Frohock

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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6 Responses to another look at analyzing critiques

  1. jenniferneri says:

    Thanks for sharing this! It’s excellent! It makes me wonder about my opening lines. I do find the revised paragrah much more revealing. It’s amazing how something we thought worked to death, can still need work! AAHHHH

    • Teresa says:

      I think the paragraph is not only tighter, but it more clearly conveys the mood I want to establish for this scene. Sometimes less is more and what your character doesn’t do can more revealing that what he/she does do.

  2. jenniferneri says:

    Question: you seem to be involved in so many on-line groups. How do you find them all?

    • Teresa says:

      Generally when I find a site that is giving good information on a consistent basis, I check out their links. I was researching agents when I found Jennifer Jackson’s web site and blog. Jennifer led me to Nathan and from there I was off and running. When I found Jennifer’s blog, I made sure to check it once a week, and she gives posts that are called “link salad” which are chock full of good sites. That’s how I found OWW. Nathan Bransford does the same type of thing, and I think he calls his “This week in links . . .”

      Then I add those sites to my own list of links. When I’m having my coffee in the morning or after dinner when I’m doing my last e-mail check before writing, I just go through and click, click, click. Once I got caught up with the posts, it takes less than five minutes to check the sites and read the post for the day or week.

      There’s a new post on Bookends every morning, which I highly recommend reading, and Nathan and Jennifer post twice a week. Edittorrent posts are bi-weekly or more frequent, depending on whether they’re offering an exercise.

      I found Edittorrent on fellow OWW member, Peter Cooper’s blog. I’d been reading Edittorrent for a while, and it was blind luck that I happened to hit it on the same day that they offered to edit four lines.

      I don’t want you to think I’m tooting my own horn, but I’ve just always had a knack for research. For some reason, when I set out to find information, I find it. I used to do freelance legal research when I was a paralegal, and now that I work in a library, I help others with their research. I love research. I know, it’s sick, but hey, I gotta be me.

      However, I can’t take all the credit, because I had a lot of help from other writers and agents who were kind enough to share their links on their blogs or web pages.

      During my lunch hour, I eat at my desk and surf for information on literary agents, writing, and submitting manuscripts. There is a wealth of information available and I love finding it and I love sharing it with others. 😉

  3. jenniferneri says:

    A librarian! I have always wanted to work in a library – seriously!!!

    Thank you for this, I will be coming to it for reference…ha ha. Again, seriously!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m afraid I can’t accept the title of librarian, because I don’t have an MLS (Masters in Library Science). I started work on my degree, but I’ve been diverted to religion, so I’m taking classes in that direction for now. I work in a paraprofessional capacity and love it!

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