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Friday, December 14, 2012

Critique of December's Winner

Scroll down to yesterday’s post to read December’s winner, 1212RS (to preserve anonymity). Today I’m posting my critique. Since my opinion counts as only one person’s perspective, not to mention that I can’t possibly cover everything, please—BIG PLEASE!—add your comments to extend the benefits to 1212RS.

HOOK: Your hook happens to consist of two components. The first is your sentence, “Maybe, just maybe, he’d live long enough to find out who was trying to kill him.” It immediately spotlights the intrigue—who is trying to kill Benny, why, and will he escape?

The second component is the promise held out by the opening 150 words that end in the scene break (###), when Benny falls asleep. The promise is that something really is going to happen--a sort of To Be Continued--once the reader gets through all the backstory of the next scene. Oh dear, is that enough to entice the reader to hang in there?

That brings up the question as to why you chose to structure the story this way. In other words, why format it as backstory with an opening current-time hook instead of just jumping into the story with the telephone call as the opening event?

Most editors will stop reading as soon as they see the story has segued into backstory. They will tell you to not ask the reader to hold her breath while she wades through past events. Instead, they want you to tell all your story in current time.

In addition, your segue into backstory has another problem. When you are in a character’s point of view (POV), you can present only what that character consciously experiences. If the character falls asleep, he’s unconscious and therefore nothing should happen from his POV. Yup, that includes no segue into backstory while he’s snoring.

There is a way to deal with this. Simply keep Benny awake and have him tell his story into his recorder. Then everything is in current time—i.e., he’s on the train, awake, making a recording. However, what he records is still backstory; it doesn’t get around that editorial no-no!

Unless there’s a really good reason to format the story as it currently stands, I suggest you eliminate the first 150 words and begin in current time with the telephone call (or some other opening). Um, sorry to say, but that means coming up with a new hook …

SCENE GOAL: In the opening 150 words, the scene goal is clear: Benny is going to record his story “before it’s too late.” Only, as it stands now, he doesn’t. He falls asleep.

In the next scene (which hopefully will become the first scene), it would be good to clarify that Benny’s goal is to get rid of the caller so he can go back to sleep. This keeps the reader from getting impatient with the phone call (minimal story action) and also sets up the obstacle to Benny’s goal, the invitation/threat that leaves him wide-eyed and sleepless. It’s not a problem to have the scene goal change to a new one (meeting the informant), but it is a problem to not identify the goal when the scene begins. Give the reader guidance so she won’t have false expectations as to where the story is going.

By the way, a scene goal is always an external action, and it can be as simple as answering a ringing phone.

CONFLICT takes place when the character’s scene goal runs into obstacles. Your first 1,0000 words contain two scene goals—first, getting rid of the phone call so Benny can sleep, and, second, meeting the informant. The first goal encounters two obstacles, the disturbing invitation and then the alarm set off by Benny’s memory at the word Chicago. Uh-oh, no way he’s going back to sleep.

The obstacle to the second goal is (or so we assume with the little information we have) Newt’s hidden observation of him, perhaps compounded by the fact that Newt is a cop. Benny doesn’t want anyone following him, but how can he be sure when he can’t see Newt? As Benny walks to the meeting, he should form some kind of goal for what he will do when he meets the informant. That goal, in turn, should run into obstacles.

Clear goal + obstacle(s) = conflict. A simple, effective formula, but it’s easy to skip the scene goal and thereby water down or even obscure the obstacles. A phone call tends to be boring reading material, but knowing Benny wants to dismiss it and can't puts some zing in it.

TENSION: You do a great job of building tension through how you “show” Benny’s reactions to stress. Some of them are mental (“Was he dreaming? Not a chance.”), some are action (“Benny’s thumb halted before it reached the ‘end’ key.”), and you have a nice variety of visceral ones (“Air drained from the room, and dread tightened around his throat.” “… preventing his pulse from settling back into its strong, slow rhythm.” “Sweat beaded on Benny’s face despite the cool air.”). You slip the reader right inside Benny’s skin with your descriptions so that she picks up on the mounting anxiety. Again, great job!

Your CHARACTERIZATION of Benny is so minimal that it might be your biggest deterrent to keeping your reader interested. The problem is that we don’t know who in the world Benny is. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he a victim of whatever happened in Chicago, or is he the perpetrator of a crime there? While it’s good to make a reader curious enough to read on, it’s not good at the cost of confusion. If the reader knows Benny is a victim and all of a sudden he’s in trouble, she’ll probably care enough about the poor guy to keep reading. Or if Benny is the perp, she probably will care enough to want him brought to justice. Curiosity about what happened in Chicago is salty enough without the uncertainty of who this guy is and where the story is going.

I pretty much assume a novel will open with the protagonist, a good guy, so that’s what I assumed Benny was. But what do I know about him after a thousand words? He lives alone, there’s some unresolved incident from his past that threatens him, and he has a cop spying on him. It would be easy for me to shrug my shoulders and say, “Ah, what do I care?” and put the book down.

Demystify Benny with a simple clue or two so the reader can orient herself to his basic identity. If he’s a cop, for example, one of his first thoughts after being jarred awake could be a reference to his having just completed his beat, and he needs sleep.

PACING: Your story starts off at a good trot, but since it’s a thriller, you’d do better to crack the whip and change the pace to a breath-taking gallop. In this scene, Benny is pretty introspective—save most of that for later. What you want now is to capture your reader through fast-paced action and tension. Cut everything you can and hurl Benny into his encounter with the informant.

GRAMMAR: A track document will be sent to 1212RS on grammar corrections. There were very few.

I’ve suggested a lot of overhauling here, which can be taken as a real bummer. However, your story concept is good—I’d read it!  Work on your opening scene to remove its stumbling blocks, and Benny will be off and running, reader in hand!

BLOG READERS: PLEASE ADD YOUR  INSIGHTS AND OPINIONS! I will run this post until December 20, when guest blogger Carrie L. Lewis will give yet another of her insightful critiques. So pitch in, keep coming back, and let’s give 1212RS a lot of take-away!


  1. Hey, 1212RS. Steph does thorough and concise critiques that are well-worth paying attention. She rocks as a critiquer. BUT, I want you to know I like your writing style, I think this is a great start to a story I would definitely like to read. So, when you decide to hand out advance reader copies for reviews, please remember and contact me. Keep at it!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the compliment. Glad you liked the excerpt. I'll definitely keep your name on file.


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