Sunday, October 19

Real Life Diagnostics: New Writer Nerves: Am I Doing This Right?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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 it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: One 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 25.

This week’s questions:

I seem to be using a lot of sentence fragments and want to know if that is 'ok' and works well. You are welcome to comment on any other areas of improvement.


Market/Genre: Fantasy

NOTE: There's a revised query for the middle grade sci fi up for those interested in how the writer edited it. Scroll down to the bottom for the new text.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Edit Note: We've got a brand new writer here, folks, bravely sending work out, so bear that in mind as you offer feedback.

The old man sighed contentedly. Months of eating forage and rations could make even simple Waterleaf wrapped fish taste like the food of kings. He studied his audience by the light of the camp fire. A big part of story telling was getting the timing right. Children sat on laps, or bunched up in whispering groups. Some stared at him boldly, while others peeked shyly from behind fingers or long strands of dark hair. Grandmothers sat patiently, with blanket draped shoulders, tending toddlers or enjoying the silent companionship of one with whom they had grown old. Here and there old men smoked narrow pipes and birthed fragrant clouds.

Two light hairs stuck out in the crowd, sitting with the Mongweh and his family. The man had hair the color of a winter deer, and the girl, of red honey in the sun. She glanced at him as if sensing his attention and offered a quick smile before turning back to her friend. The old man had been surprised to find that the girl and her father spoke the Yahata'ai language.

Laughter drew his eyes to a group of young men clustered around Hekai, the Mongweh's eldest son. They ignored the storyteller, strutting like Warbirds with ruffs and tails extended. He smiled. Some things hadn't changed despite the long years. He focused inward and captured as much of the experience as he could, binding the memories with each of the seven senses as he had been taught. The last time he had crossed this land, the elders of this tribe would have been children. From that time to this he had not seen another of his kind. It was hard to accept that he might be the last. Wherever he went, he spoke to the people, learned their history and recorded their legends. He had found that great stories often grew in unexpected places.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The old man sighed contentedly. [Months of eating forage and rations could make even simple Waterleaf wrapped fish taste like the food of kings.] Nice He studied his audience by the light of the camp fire. A big part of story telling was getting the timing right. Children sat on laps, or bunched up in whispering groups. Some stared at him boldly, while others peeked shyly from behind fingers or long strands of dark hair. Grandmothers sat patiently, with blanket draped shoulders, tending toddlers or enjoying the silent companionship of one with whom they had grown old. Here and there old men smoked narrow pipes and birthed fragrant clouds.

[Two light hairs] This hit my ears funny, as I saw "hairs" not people stuck out in the crowd, sitting with the Mongweh and his family. The man had hair the color of a winter deer, and the girl, of red honey in the sun. She glanced at [him] who does this refer to? as if sensing his attention and offered a quick smile before turning back to her friend. [The old man had been surprised to find that the girl and her father spoke the Yahata'ai language.] This felt awkward because I don't see them speak and I don't know why this matters right now. I'm also starting to wonder what the point of this scene is, as nothing is happening yet but description.

Laughter drew his eyes to a group of young men clustered around Hekai, the Mongweh's eldest son. They ignored the storyteller, strutting like Warbirds with ruffs and tails extended. He smiled. Some things hadn't changed despite the long years. He focused inward and captured as much of the experience as he could, binding the memories with each of the seven senses as he had been taught. The last time he had crossed this land, the elders of this tribe would have been children. [From that time to this he had not seen another of his kind] Has he now? I'm not sure what his kind is It was hard to accept that he might be the last. Wherever he went, he spoke to the people, learned their history and recorded their legends. He had found that great stories often grew in unexpected places.

The questions:

1. I seem to be using a lot of sentence fragments and want to know if that is 'ok' and works well.


Grammar gurus speak up here, but I don't see any sentence fragments. Some short sentences, sure, but it looks like there are subjects and verbs in all of them. Even if there were fragments, sentence fragments are okay if they work in the story. People often speak in fragments, and sometimes a fragment has that terse quality you want to make a dramatic point.

(Here's more on what you need to know to write)

Fiction and storytelling isn't about proper grammar and perfect structure--it's about getting ideas, stories, and emotions to readers. Naturally, writers should strive for proper grammar and write well, but rules are broken all the time for the sake of the story. If the paragraph sounds right and evokes the emotion in the reader you want it to, then it's doing its job.

(Here's more on why good writing is more than following the rules)

2. You are welcome to comment on any other areas of improvement.

I think you're on the right track here (readers chime in). There's a definite sense of place and I love the waterleaf description in the beginning. This doesn't say "new writer" to me, just "early draft," so kudos there. A few places you might consider working on to improve your skills:

A goal for the protagonist: I'm not yet getting a sense of what the point of this scene is, as it's mostly description. The old man mentions storytelling at the start, so I assume he's about to tell a story, then that aspect is lost. Without that goal and knowing why this scene matters, it's feeling a little aimless. As a reader, I'm ready to "get to the point" of the story so it's feeling slow to me.

(Here's more on goals and why they matter)

Dialog and internalization:
Everything feels outside looking in right now, and a little more sense of who this old man is and who these people are would be nice. What's the old man thinking? I get a few snippets here and there, but with the omniscient third person narrator, I'm not sure if it's the old man's opinion or the narrator's. Some dialog to dramatize the scene would also make readers feel there in the moment. The description is solid, so perhaps start to flesh out other layers to bring this scene to life.

(Here's more on internalization)

Point of View: I advise studying POV to all new writers, because it's the strongest tool you have in your writer's toolbox. This section reads like omniscient third person with a distant narrator, and if that's your goal, it's working. If you're going for a closer POV (and many do, which is why I'm mentioning it, as a distant third person is common for new writers "telling" the story), then you might spend a little time reading up on how to bring that POV closer to your narrator and get more inside the protagonist's head.

(Here's more on why POV will solve most of writing problems)

Overall, this is a great start. You mentioned in your submission that you've been pantsing this, so it might take you a while to figure out your story and where this is going (which is normal). If you want a little more structure, you could try some minimal outlining, or just keep writing and see where it takes you. The best way to learn how to write is to write, and that's how you'll figure out what you need to work on and where your strengths lie. Even for professional writers, first drafts are usually rough, so don't worry if yours isn't perfect right away. That's all part of the process.

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) and I encourage you 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.

5 comments:

  1. Hi Janice. Thanks very much for the critique. Some of the points you mention - like POV- I knew were problems, but others generated great 'ah-ha!' moments. I really appreciate details like this as they give me specifics I can target.

    From your comments I also realized that some of my descriptions - like 'light hairs' (an effort to distinguish the racial differences with out saying 'white') is a product of my pantsing. Each chapter is almost an independent scene. A vignette. As a result I am describing or defining something that I would likely have done earlier in the book if I had attacked it with a plan.

    I have started to work on some minimal outlining. I realize that while I do have a sense of where the story is going - and there are some individually dramatic moments - it moves along in a series of tiny 'pops' rather than escalating tension.

    Thanks again. It's amazing how much information can be retrieved from a small slice of writing. :)

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  2. I love this vignette! I don't know where it occurs in the story, but if it's at the beginning, I'd read more. It gives me the sense of settling in for a grand tale. That said, the scene is now set and I'd want the tale to begin right away - time for some dialog! ;-)

    'Light hairs' made me go back and re-read the sentence to grasp the context, but I think that could easily be solved with a hyphen. If I had read 'light-hairs', I would have instantly understood that it was a race distinction. Likewise I stopped and backed up at 'Waterleaf wrapped', and that wouldn't have happened to me if it had been hyphenated. I also paused at the capitalization on Waterleaf - is it a brand name in this world? If it's just a common plant name, it wouldn't be capitalized.

    I don't have a problem with the POV. I tend to prefer tighter POVs, but (in this snippet at least) it felt generally right. I think there were only a couple of sentences that distanced it unnecessarily: "The old man had been surprised to find that the girl and her father spoke the Yahata'ai language." and "Wherever he went, he spoke to the people, learned their history and recorded their legends. He had found that great stories often grew in unexpected places." These seem like a bit of an info-dump, and the snippet loses nothing if they are deleted entirely. If that information is critical to the reader's understanding, it could be worked into the narrative later as it becomes necessary to the story.

    I'm not bothered by the sentence "From that time to this he had not seen another of his kind." To me it's a little hook that makes me want to read on and find out what his kind is, and what happened to make him the sole survivor.

    Thanks for a very enjoyable little vignette!

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  4. Sorry - 1st post went haywire...

    This is a beautiful start! You had me completely entranced and never lost as far as POV goes. Nothing felt slow-moving to me. I loved the short sentences, as they reflected how the old man viewed his surroundings. I immediately knew what you meant by light hairs, but a hyphen would allow readers to grasp that this was an inclusive term.

    I love that he's a sole survivor and we are becoming part of his experience in legend-gathering.

    I'm not one to praise without reason - but if I were an agent, I'd jump on this. As an editor? I'd cut my rate just to have the chance to be the first to read your work!

    This opening, to me, is lusciously languid and rich - only a few hyphens to be popped in. I see/feel no info-dumps and enjoy the small bits of info given that build on the scene and my interest - not everything has to have a reason to exist in the first 200 words. :)

    Maybe it's just resonating with me...but I think you have a stunning start and am delighted you shared this with us. Thank you!

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  5. Thank you both for the kind words. I'll play around with the hyphens and also removing unnecessary text. I'm trying to make the transition from reader to writer and truthfully never really considered POV. The articles on this site regarding that are very useful and I will think about everything offered. Thanks again. :)

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