Saturday, September 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Am I Doing Anything Right?

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s questions:
I just started writing. I have not shown my work to anyone and I am afraid this is all terribly wrong. I have so many questions. What POV am I using? Did the emotion come through? Are my tenses correct? Is it too "purple"? I could go on and on.
I usually don’t comment until after the crit, but this submission really touched me. I have a lot of respect for someone who’s taking a risk and reaching out like this so they can improve their skills. There’s so much information available on writing, but you don’t always know what’s good for those just starting out, or what’s more appropriate to someone who’s been writing a while. And let’s face it—sometimes newbies get raked over the coals out there. This author has even inspired me to take a look at my archives and tag system and see what I can do to make it easier for new writers to find things that apply to them. (and even have some other levels as well for those who aren’t sure where to look or what they should be working on)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
The shadows of the day are crawling up the wall as the pair of bare legs swing off the bed. The callus feet hit the quarter-sawn white oak flooring sending dust bunnies swirling around the room. The springs groan under his weight and creek in relief as he rises. The need for a clock is no longer useful for time is as fleeting as his breath that vaporizes in the crisp morning air. The recesses of his collarbone where sweat had pool began to trickle down his chest as he walked. The room is empty as is his body and mind and almost as cold. Shuffling bare feet make their way across the room into the unlit hall stubbing a toe on an unseen object. His curse is only heard in the early morning fog of the mind.

Upon entering the bathroom, the switch is flipped not only in the room but also in his stagnant mind. He prefers the quick dreams, even the night terrors because he knows they will end however brief. The days now seem endless. The light from the bare one hundred watt bulb hits his pupils and sends shock waves through his synapses’; he knows another day of hell on earth has begun. “Where is hell? What is hell? What the hell! Are we kidding ourselves, is there really a hell.” Every time he wakes he knows he is still there. Will death end this feeling of dread?

The mirror is partially open from last night fruitless search for anything that could ease his pain, as he closes the mirror his image explodes into view. He sees a ragged, sun beaten, worn down face much older than his years. He knows it is not the result from drugs or alcohol. “I have never smoked, not even inhaled Mr. Clinton. What happened?”

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I’m switching things around a bit here and answering the questions first, because the questions are separate from the more general crit I’d like to do for this.

The questions:
What POV am I using?

Sometimes it’s hard for an outside reader to tell with third person, because distant third limited can feel like omniscient third. This feels like omniscient third to me, though. There’s an outside narrator telling this story who isn’t the point of view character.

Did the emotion come through?
It does. There’s a strong sense of despair and hopelessness here. Sadness as well, and some frustration.

Are my tenses correct?
It’s mostly in present tense, though there are some words here and there that shift to past tense. However, most novels use past tense with third person, so you might consider changing to past tense. It’s not mandatory or anything, but third person present tense tends to add to that distant omniscient feel like you’re standing there hearing someone describe everything they do as they do it. Present tense can be tough to write so it sounds natural. Due to its nature, it often encourages describing every little thing in sequence, which can bog a story down and feel tedious after a while. But if that’s what you like to write you can by all means write in present tense. You’ll just have a few extra challenges past tense doesn’t have.

Is it too "purple"?
Purple is tough to identify sometimes because one person’s purple is another’s beautiful writing. There were a few lines I felt were a bit overly written, but for the most part, no, you’re fine. It’s fancier than what I personal go for, but I prefer sparse writing. (Check out the purple prose post from a while back and you’ll see how many liked the purple examples I’d written. Tastes vary) There’s some lovely imagery here and the voice and tone add to the sense of despair, and I think you’re accomplishing that because of how it’s written.

My Thoughts in Purple:
The shadows of the day are crawling up the wall as the pair of bare legs swing off the bed. [The [callus] callused feet hit the quarter-sawn white oak flooring comma sending dust bunnies swirling around the room.] This sentence felt a little over written to me because of all the extra adjectives. Trimming a few would fix that The springs groan under his weight and [creek] creak in relief as he rises. [The need for a clock is no longer useful comma for time is as fleeting as his breath that vaporizes in the crisp morning air.] This one felt a bit heavy, but I really like the image of time and his breath vaporizing. The recesses of his collarbone where sweat [had] has [pool] pooled [began] begin to trickle down his chest as he [walked] walks. [The room is empty comma as is his body and mind comma and almost as cold.] Nice imagery Shuffling bare feet make their way across the room into the unlit hall comma stubbing a toe on an unseen object. [His curse is only heard in the early morning fog of the mind.] This feels a little over written to me.

This paragraph is all description. There are some interesting things here, but with nothing happening or no sense of the POV character, it starts to feel like a list. Look at the sentence structure:

The shadows of the day are crawling up the wall as the pair of bare legs swing off the bed.
The callus feet hit the quarter-sawn white oak flooring sending dust bunnies swirling around the room.
The springs groan under his weight and creek in relief as he rises.
The need for a clock is no longer useful for time is as fleeting as his breath that vaporizes in the crisp morning air.
The recesses of his collarbone where sweat had pool began to trickle down his chest as he walked.
The room is empty as is his body and mind and almost as cold.
Shuffling bare feet make their way across the room into the unlit hall stubbing a toe on an unseen object.
His curse is only heard in the early morning fog of the mind.

Notice how almost every sentence begins with the? And how frequently as is used? Both of these add to the list feel, and the distant feel of outside looking in. You could almost rearrange these sentences as it wouldn’t change anything. There’s no sense of narrative flow, with one sentence leading the story to the next. Try reworking the sentences a little to vary the structure and the rhythm. Also, see how you can revise to eliminate as many of those “as” phrases as you can. That will help pull the POV back to your character to show more and tell less.

[Upon entering the bathroom, the switch is flipped not only in the room comma but also in his stagnant mind.] I like the image here, but it feels over written. [He prefers the quick dreams, even the night terrors comma because he knows they will end however brief.] This is the first sentence that has the character as the subject, not a body part. I like this, as I finally start to see who this is and get to know them some. The days now seem endless. [The light from the bare one hundred watt bulb hits his pupils and sends shock waves through his synapses’;] A little heavy here, so perhaps just say the bare bulb. Is it important to know the size of it? he knows another day of hell on earth has begun. [Where is hell? What is hell? What the hell! Are we kidding ourselves, is there really a hell.” Every time he wakes he knows he is still there. Will death end this feeling of dread?] Starting to get into his head some here, which is good. I’m getting to know him and what his problem is

I’m getting more in the character now with this paragraph, though I do feel very distant from him. There’s some telling with what “he knows” and “prefers,’ which adds to that distance. However, that is common in omniscient third. Even his internal dialog feels outside looking in to me. It’s hard to connect to a character when you’re kept at a distance like that, though that could be the intent. This seems like a very troubled man, and getting too close could be too disturbing.

The [mirror] Do you mean the medicine cabinet? is partially open from last night fruitless search for anything that could ease his [pain, as] This might read better with a period instead of a comma he closes the mirror his image explodes into view. [He sees] telling some here a ragged, sun beaten, worn down face much older than his years. [He knows] telling some here it is not the result from drugs or alcohol. “I have never smoked, not even inhaled comma, otherwise it reads as if he inhaled Clinton Mr. Clinton. What happened?”

In this paragraph I see a hint of a goal or problem. He did something last night and can’t remember what it was. Of course this could also be a general “what happened to me?” statement. From a narrative standpoint, three paragraphs of almost pure description is going to chase off most readers, so you might look for ways to entice them back to the story. Have a character doing things instead of just describing things that happen. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

For example:
The mirror hangs partially open. He closes it, and a ragged, sun beaten, worn down face much older than his years stares back at him. It’s not the result of drugs or alcohol. “I have never smoked, not even inhaled, Mr. Clinton,” he mumbles, splashing cold water on his face. What happened?
Same basic details, but now the POV character is driving the scene, not simply being observed in it.

My Suggestions Moving Forward
Trying to learn everything at once will very likely lead to frustration and confusion, so I suggest focusing on a few things at a time to help build your writing foundation. Word craft builds on itself, so the stronger your basic skills are, the better your writing will be later.

1. Study point of view (POV). With a solid understanding of POV, most common writing problems go away. When you’re in the head of your POV, you show more, tell less, and know what’s important to convey to the reader. It also makes it easier to know what your character’s goals are, which will drive your story and create your plot. I feel this is the single best thing any writer can do to improve their work, because stories are about characters. Understand those characters and how they interact with the world around them and things feel more focused.

2. Change to past tense unless you really love present tense. Or try first person present tense, which is more acceptable. It’ll just make things easier on you overall.

3. Brush up on punctuation. A missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence, sometimes in funny way. Punctuation also helps you pace your sentences, adding pauses where you need them. Like road signs for your story.

I think spending some time on these things will help create a solid writing base on which to build your skills. It’ll also give you something to focus on so you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and see improvement in your writing. Not knowing if you’re getting any better is a common frustration.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

12 comments:

  1. This is pretty well written although some of the descriptions are overdone. Perhaps prune back the descriptions or use fewer images so that those that are used really pop. Also, getting into the character's mind a little sooner, like within the first paragraph, would be better as the reader then has someone to anchor to.
    Definitely consider switching to past tense!

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  2. The bravery of the submitter and the mentoring ability of the critiquer shine through.

    Best of luck as you begin your writing journey. One more thing to add to Janice's suggestions: Read a lot.

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  3. Wow, I wish I'd been so brave or done so well with my early attempts! Good for you.

    It all seems so daunting in the beginning, but you WILL get there. You've definitely found the right website to help you along the way. You've got a lot of promise there, don't give up!

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  4. You're a lot braver than I am. I would never have dared to send my early writing out into cyberspace to be critiqued. I like the mystery aspect at the end as he tries to uncover what had happened to him. I did find the line `a pair of bare legs swing off the bed' a bit distracting, though. I kind of pictured them as disembodied for a second. That's a minor thing, though, easily fixed. You're off to a great start.

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  5. Ditto on being so brave. I'm a professional freelancer (non-fiction articles), but I'm still shaking in my books about having my first novel up for critique!

    And I agree with Janice about changing the tense. I still know people who won't read the Hunger Games because of the tense -- and it's first person, which (like she said), is easier to get into.

    The biggest thing though, for me, is the rhythm. Varying sentence structure will help with this, but try reading it aloud. Even slap your legs to a beat to see how it flows while you're reading.

    Then pick out a favorite book and try doing the same thing with some paragraphs there -- you should see a definite rhythm. It was a good exercise for me, anyway!

    Good luck with your writing!

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  6. Brave Author - Thanks for sharing your work. Your sincerity is refreshing :)

    Janice - Great critique. I especially love the tip to study POV. Great idea :)

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  7. Congrats on putting your work out there and getting good feedback - you'll learn a lot quicker.

    Here's the three tips I'd give.

    The first paragraph's sentences all follow the same rhythm, which makes a little monotonous. Compare it to the first three sentences of the second paragraph, where there's much more variation.

    Don't give a report on a person's day, but tell a story. Like if you were talking across a booth in a bar, or it's the narration of a movie, or a letter to a friend. How much can you trim out, and where would the story begin? What's most interesting? For me it was "He prefers the quick dreams..."

    The best book for learning POV is The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, by Nancy Lamb. Great examples and tips.

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  8. Thank you all for the kind words.
    All the tips and suggestions are great.

    Janice, I thank you most sincerely for your mentoring. Your critique is extremely helpful. You consistently have useful and timely information. You are the best.

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  9. Again, let me say a big congratulations to the author for being brave enough to submit their work. I salute your courage.

    I often compare writing to walking. When you start out, you're wobbly and you fall over a lot. But the more you practice, the better you get at moving from point A to point B. You watch and learn from other people, you practice, and eventually you develop your own, unique gait. And then you stop thinking about how to walk, and start focusing on where you're going.

    The one piece of advice I'd like to add is a recommendation to read your work aloud. As Janice said, the first paragraph has a lot of descriptive information, but it reads like a list. If you read it aloud, you'll notice the repititious rhythm of each sentence, and get some hints as to how to mix it up a bit.

    This can also help you move from relating facts, to telling a story.

    Best of luck! And welcome to the adventure!

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  10. Ditto with all the previous comments and kudos for your bravery. One more thing. I was thrown off in the first paragraph because the shadows of the day were crawling up the wall. I've observed that shadows go up the wall when the sun is setting and they descend or shorten as the sun is rising. I though maybe it was a guy who slept all day and was getting ready for a night job or a night of partying until I read the sentence placing it in the morning. I know its little and nitpicky, but I had to find that stuff in my own writing when I would have the moon going the wrong direction or my characters picking out a constellation that wasn't even visible during that season in their location.

    The Devil is in the Details...So True!

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  11. I believe everyone mentioned the things I noticed, but I did want to say good for you for opening yourself up for critique. Its the hardest thing we have to learn as writers.

    Janice did an amazing job with her comments.

    For me, the story really started in paragraph three. The first two were good scene setters, but if you can condense them to one paragraph you will hold more readers.

    Good luck!

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  12. You guys really rock. Thanks for all the great feedback and support for this author :)

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