Under the Microscope: Crossing at a Walk

 

Welcome back to the Under the Microscope series. In this post, we’ll read an excerpt of a story, see what works and what doesn’t, and look at ways to improve it.

How it works: an author submits an excerpt from the beginning of one of their stories, with the understanding that I’ll publicly critique it. I give the excerpt a manuscript critique and post it.

Why does the author do this? A free critique and an opportunity for others to learn through the experience of someone else. Maybe the author wants to test market an idea, opener, or plot concept. The author, as usual, stays anonymous.

If you’d like information on my manuscript critique services, where I’ll professionally critique your manuscript like how I do to the story below, check out my details page.

 

Genre: Adventure, mystery

Summary: Sadie Hatheway is the successful owner/manager of a rural writing retreat. But the demands of her community, where civic participation is expected, overshadows her need to do some writing of her own.

When the local covered bridge is destroyed in a storm, Sadie is expected to assist in the lobbying effort focused on rebuilding the bridge. One of the present live-in writers has historical information to guarantee the replacement of the bridge and Sadie must discover this information before time runs out.

 

Here is the excerpt, untouched:

For a moment, she could not remember her own name. Alone, wide awake, she sat in her living room on a night relentless with wind and rain. The walnut clock on the mantle struck three. She watched the second hand shudder towards one minute after. Forty-two seconds. Forty-three seconds. Forty-four.

‘Patricia,’ she said. Relief flooded her body, sending a warm rush like a gulp of ginger tea down her throat, to the tips of her fingers.

‘Patricia Smythe. Pat to my friends. Patty to my brother Rob. Years and years ago.’

She tried to remember her brother, the sound of his voice calling to her from the landing on the stairway.

Pat could not summon the memory, any more than she could summon sleep. Eyes wide, brows up, shoulders square – not a pose for dreaming. Or fond remembering. Wedging herself deeper into the corner of the sofa, she tried to warm her feet under the hem of her housecoat. She glanced at the empty chair by the fireplace and wished her husband sat there. He would have asked her a few gentle questions, helped her remember. Her husband. Now, what was his name?

Upstairs in her bedroom under the eaves, sleep had sneered at Pat’s attempts to count backwards, find the most comfortable side to lie on, tuck the right thickness of sheet under her chin. The cold rain beat against the window. At intervals pellets of ice spattered the glass, tapped at the sill. In the attic above her, she thought she could hear the patter of vermiculite insulation, stirred by the wind. A tree limb, its twigs grown under a loose shingle, scratched at unprotected boards. The tree had been planted far too close to the house.

Pat and the tree had shared this place for more than sixty years. Time to know the house very well. The way the kitchen door stuck after a week of rain. The seep of water on the sill of the pantry window. The leak along the edges of the chimney during a rain with a north wind.

She could see the evidence tonight. A semicircle of brown stained the ceiling at the edge of the brick. Pat watched the dark grey gather into a droplet and trickle down the chimney face. The bead of moisture ran between two bricks, paused at the horizontal joining of the next row, chose a direction, left or right and crept along until it reached the next vertical groove. Above the mantle, where a cheap reproduction of a seascape leaned, the water of the seep joined the painted water of the salt sea.

She would have to call the roofers, first thing in the morning. A small job but expensive, once they found where the rain was getting in and traced it to the chimney. When Forbes was living it would have been a minor glitch in the whole cycle of keeping an older home in repair. Forbes, that was his name.

 

Here is the excerpt after the manuscript critique. My thoughts are in blue.

For a moment, she could not remember her own name. [I’m digging your opening sentence. I’m leaning toward suggesting to remove the “for a moment,” as the comma weighs the sentence down. Consider “It took her a moment to remember her own name.”] Alone, wide awake [Consider “Alone and wide awake”], she sat in her living room on a night relentless [This sounds a bit awkward. Consider “…she began to think the storm would never end.” Although, opening with weather is generally seen as a cliche.] with wind and rain. The walnut clock [I know you mean the wood of a Walnut tree, but it struck me as odd sounding.] on the mantle struck three. She watched the second hand shudder towards one minute after. Forty-two seconds. Forty-three seconds. Forty-four.  [Okay, this is interesting. I wonder what she’s specifically waiting for.]

‘Patricia,’ she said. Relief flooded her body, sending a warm rush like a gulp of ginger tea down her throat, to the tips of her fingers. [Interesting way to describe her relief. I’m confused, though. Is she talking to herself or did someone walk in the door? And if she’s talking to herself, I imagine she’d be saying something different.]

‘Patricia Smythe. Pat to my friends. Patty to my brother Rob. Years and years ago.’

She tried to remember her brother, the sound of his voice calling to her from the landing on the stairway.

Pat could not summon the memory, any more than she could summon sleep. Eyes wide, brows up, shoulders square – not a pose for dreaming. Or fond remembering. Wedging herself deeper into the corner of the sofa, she tried to warm her feet under the hem of her housecoat. She glanced at the empty chair by the fireplace and wished her husband sat there. He would have asked her a few gentle questions, helped her remember. Her husband. Now, what was his name? [Interesting that you call her Pat, assuming the reader are her friends, as she classified earlier. I’m neutral on that. I wonder why you’re starting out the story with someone other than the protagonist in a slow-paced solo scene. I recommend considering starting out with a more moving, dynamic scene with the protagonist front and center.]

Upstairs in her bedroom under the eaves, sleep had sneered at Pat’s attempts to count backwards [Do you mean to have sleep come across that vicious? Perhaps consider “sniffed” rather than sneer.] , find the most comfortable side to lie on, tuck the right thickness of sheet under her chin. [To be honest, this amount of detail is dragging the story, for me. If it was later in the story and I cared about the character first, this would be much more tolerable.] The cold rain beat against the window. At intervals pellets of ice spattered the glass, tapped at the sill. In the attic above her, she thought she could hear the patter of vermiculite insulation [Eh?], stirred by the wind. A tree limb, its twigs grown under a loose shingle, scratched at unprotected boards. The tree had been planted far too close to the house. [In my opinion, this is all too much detail, at least for the story’s beginning. Consider snipping this paragraph.]

Pat and the tree had shared this place for more than sixty years. Time to know the house very well. The way the kitchen door stuck after a week of rain. [I’m not sure how rain would do that. By expanding the wood around it, perhaps?] The seep of water on the sill [This is the 4th time the word “sill” has been used thus far. Consider cutting or using a different word.] of the pantry window. The leak along the edges of the chimney during a rain with a north wind. [Once again, I’d consider snipping this paragraph too, for the same reason of too much detail that doesn’t move the story along.]

She could see the evidence tonight. [“that night”] A semicircle of brown stained the ceiling at the edge of the brick. [Being a mystery, my reaction to this was a decomposing body causing the stain.] Pat watched the dark grey gather into a droplet and trickle down the chimney face. The bead of moisture ran between two bricks, paused at the horizontal joining of the next row, chose a direction, left or right and crept along until it reached the next vertical groove. [That last sentence takes the embellishment of detail even further.] Above the mantle, where a cheap reproduction of a seascape leaned, the water of the seep joined the painted water of the salt sea.

She would have to call the roofers [Personally, I’d delete the last 3 paragraphs and have this be the first paragraph since wondering what her husband’s name was.], first thing in the morning. A small job but expensive, once they found where the rain was getting in and traced it to the chimney [Does she know for a fact it’s the chimney due to a previous repair?]. When Forbes was living it would have been a minor glitch in the whole cycle of keeping an older home in repair. Forbes, that was his name. [Okay, remembering her husband’s name is interesting. I wonder if there’s a particular significance to her failing memory. Hopefully, the significance of this person other than the protagonist mentioned in the summary comes about soon after this excerpt.]

[In closing, and as mentioned earlier, the opening is so important. It’s your opportunity to grab the readers’ attention and compel them to keep reading. That’s not to say it has to be a fight scene or a car chase, merely in the power of your writing. If you’ll indulge me to offer an example of a rewrite, I’ll do so. I’ll likely take some liberties with the plot.]

Ryan’s rewrite:

Pat told herself to stop looking out the window. Sadie would arrive when she’d said she would. Or at least, sometime near it. The curtain dragged against her fingers as she released it. Even something so light made her arm shake within a few minutes.

Water dripped from somewhere. She had no idea where and barely cared. Frank usually took care of the repairs while she brushed up on her knitting. Or was it Forbes? She shook her head. Of course she remembered her husband’s name. Forbes. They carved his name into the coffin. She’d never forget that.

For time’s sake, I’ll stop there. I can only discuss from the angle of my own perspective and opinion, but an opener like that feels stronger to me and would draw me into the character. If there’s to be no strong physical action, let’s make the character strongly intriguing or interesting.

To the original author: feel free to use any part of my example, if you wish.

* * *

I’d like to give a big thanks to the author for submitting the excerpt! If you, dear reader, would like to submit your own excerpt to be publicly critiqued for free, click here. You remain anonymous and get to receive feedback on your writing.

If you’d like to comment on the excerpt, please be courteous, constructive, and keep the author in mind.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Under the Microscope: Crossing at a Walk”

  1. To be honest, I prefer the author’s original opening. Yes, it’s slow, but it’s intriguing and apart from a little pruning needed here and there, I think it’s very good. The observation of detail strikes me as accurate for someone beginning to lose their faculties/ suffering the onset of dementia: you can imagine Pat really focusing on damp patches etc – seen before and therefore remembered, to try and urge other memories to come back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the great thing about fiction, it’s subjective. I’m glad you enjoyed the author’s writing. Another thing to consider is the viewpoint. My viewpoint, for example, comes from commercial fiction, whereas someone else with a literary fiction background would have a different viewpoint.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just a few thoughts: I had a strong adverse reaction to the personification of sleep as “sneering.” It doesn’t feel like part of Pat’s stream of consciousness, even in retrospect. Perhaps something more like “she had tussled with wakefulness and it had won.” Or, she had tried to sweet talk sleep, but she (or he) kept his/her distance.

    Also, is her husband dead? In keeping with the memory difficulties, she might actually be looking for or hoping to see him then remember he’s dead and then “now what was his name?”

    Like

  3. I was engrossed in the original piece and so engaged with Pat, that I’d forgotten all about Sadie and had to scroll up! So yes, if the story is about Sadie, she needs to be introduced earlier… but maybe Pat’s story is a more interesting one!

    Like

  4. I enjoyed the original more than the rewrite. It’s written in a way to draw the reader in, even if there’s not much plot going on yet. Yes, Sadie should be mentioned if she’s coming to Pat’s place, but the tone doesn’t need to be changed.

    Like

  5. What a great idea. I liked both. The author pulled me in but I missed Sadie so that needs to be fixed. Your changes had more of a hook from the git-go. This should give the author a lot to chew on, it sure did me. Thanks.

    Like

  6. The amount of description really feels much closer to that found in literary novels, where the atmosphere is almost more important than the characters and the pacing is slow, and some of your wording, like “a night relentless,” seems very literary.

    If this is supposed to be more like genre fiction (thriller, mystery, etc.), you should probably opt for altering the narrative tone to where things happen a lot more quickly, and either way, it feels like too much description. For me, the paragraph of “She could see the evidence tonight” was when I zoned out, wanting something to actually happen and not to hear about the drip of water down the boards, but there are ways to up the interest in the description. If we learn first why she has such trouble sleeping during storms and why storms matter to her, it might help us care about the house’s roof decaying, but overall, I’d agree with Ryan. The more you can get a reader to care about the character in the scene, before having something this slow and detailed, the better.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s